Termites on the menu: defending South Africa’s edible bugs | International Concepts | DW

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Martin Boima stands under a large mango tree in Mopye, a village in northeast South Africa, and eats crispy dried termites. He ate that insects, known locally as “Makeke” since he was a little boy who lured them out of their mounds with long strips of grass and dried or fried them.

Today he distributes homemade termite protein bars, which are available in cheese or chocolate flavor, to an excited village people. It’s part of a series of taste tests he’s doing in his new insect-based food business.

He is joined by Bronwyn Egan, a zoologist from the University of Limpopo in South Africa, who shares his fascination with edible insects on a culinary and academic level. For the past two years she has worked closely with Boima and other locals, building her knowledge of both nutritious animals and actual specimens.

Enriching science with traditional knowledge

She wants to build a scientific understanding of these species as a first step towards their conservation. Some estimates say up to 40% of insect species could be extinct worldwide in the decades to come – mainly due to habitat loss as land is turned into intensive agriculture, as well as urbanization and pesticide use.

Termites are lured out of their mounds

Egan fears that poor insect taxonomy in South Africa makes it particularly difficult to accurately understand the extent of biodiversity loss. “We don’t even have names for all the things that are lost every day,” she said. Enriching science with traditional knowledge Egan hopes her project will help conservation for insects, which are a particularly valuable source of food for communities.

Catching, cooking, and eating insects as a whole is common in many parts of rural South Africa, including the lush, mountainous Bolobedu South area of ​​Limpopo, where Boima lives. He says he “loves insects” for their earthy, nutty taste. “However you want to cook them – they’re always nice.”

Worm stew is a traditional and nutritious dish in the Mopye village

Boima and other field workers share the names, whereabouts, and behavior of local edible species with Egan to help protect and promote insects and the traditional knowledge that is close to his heart.

Today he shows her how he catches his dinner in the fields next to his village. He shakes plants with a green branch and causes locusts – or “ditšie” – to jump into his waiting hands.

Bar coding biodiversity

Part of his bounty goes into a plastic bag for Egan’s lab, where she keeps the samples in alcohol and records her identity information. A selection of the specimens received will then be sent nationwide to Barbara van Asch, lecturer at the Institute for Genetics at Stellenbosch University.

Martin Boima is holding a bag of freshly caught grasshoppers that will be sent for genetic barcoding

Martin Boima is happy to donate his locusts for scientific research

Van Asch sequences the insects’ DNA to create a genetic barcode. This information, along with other classifications such as genus and scientific name, is then added to databases such as the International Barcode of Life – a global library of genetic information for various species aimed at protecting biodiversity.

So far, Van Asch’s Limpopo Samples have provided nine “ethno-species” groups of animals identified by local communities rather than Western scientific classification systems. This type of work was done on other edibles insect Population in Asian countries, but African knowledge has often been overlooked by academic science, explained van Asch. “It’s like bringing them to life,” she said. “But only on our side, because on the side of the communities they [already] exist.”

Environmental threats

From the field where he caught the locusts, Boima points to a spot on the other side of a green valley that used to be rich in insects. Now there is hardly any left, he explains, and the leaves are starting to turn brown. He suspects the landowner sprayed pesticides in preparation for converting the land for development or agriculture.

Martin Boima (left) and Bronwyn Egan eat and discuss various edible insect and insect protein bars

Scientist Bronwyn Egan wants to use traditional knowledge about insects to support research and conservation

Egan and van Asch see their identification work as an essential first step towards conservation. “If it doesn’t have a name, no one will prevent a building from being erected for an unnamed cause,” says Egan. They hope that this foundation of scientific knowledge will inform researchers and activists who want to track and defend insect populations.

Commercialization insects

They also see the potential it has to aid in the commercialization of human insect-based food Animal feedwhich has gained momentum in recent years. Consumers can now buy cricket protein in the US or insect ice cream in South Africa. “They only need a very small amount of resources compared to their nutritional value,” said van Asch.

  • A man tries to eat a canape with a fried grasshopper

    Insects on the menu

    Locust lunch

    In view of the growing world population and the threat posed by agricultural land – around a third of the world’s arable land has been lost in the last 40 years – pressure is being exerted on global food supplies. Added to this is the pollution of meat production from the environment. Many believe that insects – like the grasshopper that a man in Tokyo ate with an egg here – are a believable alternative.

  • A person eats grilled caterpillars with olive oil

    Insects on the menu

    Caterpillars in the Congo

    Entomophagy is the name given to the human use of insects as food. Humans have eaten insects since prehistoric times, and today most of the world’s culinary cultures involve eating insects in some way. In the restaurant pictured here in the city of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, a person eats grilled caterpillars with olive oil. The food is cheap but is a good source of protein.

  • Insects for human consumption

    Insects on the menu

    Make a meal out of it

    Despite its global ubiquity, there are many places, especially in Europe and North America, where insectivores are rare and treated with some reserve. However, there is evidence that insects are growing in popularity due to the increasing promotion of insects as a sustainable food source by environmentalists. In this picture, Sydney chef Nowshad Alam Rasel shows a signature cricket dish.

  • Insects are eaten with fish in a restaurant

    Insects on the menu

    Crawling animals crawl on to menus

    But what is so sustainable about beetle management? Compared to animal husbandry, insect farming requires much less land and water, and greenhouse gas emissions are much lower. Insects require very little food and can themselves be used as sustainable food for animals and fish. Increasingly, they are used in high-end cuisine – this Bangkok restaurant eats winged ants with fish.

  • Founders of the start-up for edible insects cook insect ramen in the laboratory

    Insects on the menu

    An alternative to palm oil?

    Biteback, an Indonesian start-up, has promoted insects as a nutrient-rich, sustainable alternative to palm oil, the cultivation of which has been criticized for its environmental impact, particularly in Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries. The founders pictured here who make insect ramen emphasize that insects are nutritious and high in fatty acids, proteins and minerals.

  • Lollipops made with insects are on a table

    Insects on the menu

    Worm lollipop

    Global meat demand is expected to increase by more than 75 percent by 2050. The amount of agricultural land and animal feed required for such production means that the need for credible protein alternatives will increase in the years to come. Entomophagy enthusiasts point to the culinary flexibility of insects – an example of products such as the worm and cricket lollipop shown here.

  • A woman eats a piece of cake with roasted male bees

    Insects on the menu

    Eat a bee or not to eat a bee

    While insectivores may be a huge part of the future of food, a lot of development is needed in this sector. In an attempt to pamper the palate, unusual meals – like this cake with roasted bees that is eaten at a Berlin environmental fair – are tried out. With the pressure on bee populations themselves around the world, more practical insect-based meals may need to be devised.

    Author: Arthur Sullivan


Insects were highlighted as being more sustainable alternative Meat protein as it uses less water, less land and produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition to the continued barcode work, Van Asch plans to provide funding for pilot projects to test how households in South Africa can set up small farms. The results of her research with Egan will help determine which species might be suitable.

A study This year, the University of Bonn came to the conclusion that while insect breeding has growth potential as a sector, more research is required on the suitability of the species and the investment and political framework conditions required for this.

However, Egan believes that combining traditional knowledge from areas like Limpopo with scientific data could help identify which species could be commercialized. For example, these soldier termites, which occur year round, would be a better choice than the seasonal flying termites.

Boima plans to start selling its termite protein bars soon and eventually hopes to employ others in the area. He is also interested in teaching people the value of this traditional knowledge. “We need to know that these insects are very important to our culture and that we can live because of them,” he said. “So we have to take care of them.”