Insect Consumption Cases Around the World

Insect Consumption Cases Around the World

Faith Humbles

Senior Project

Insect Consumption Cases Around the World


Although there is a stigma attached to entomophagy, the act of eating insects, in America and Western Europe, it is widely practiced around the world. According to Ramos-Elorduy (1998), it is practiced by approximately 3,000 cultures.Food preferences are an important part of cultural identity.These preferences also help to determine the economic and ecological relationships within a culture. The following essay contains two brief case studies of entomophagy. One case study explores mopane worms in southern Africa, and the other exploreschapulines in Oaxaca, Mexico. Both cases show entomophagy from different angles in terms of cultivation and its effect on the environment, but they both amplify its significance within a culture’s sourceof food and economic relationships.

Mopane Worms in Southern Africa

In parts of southern Africa, like Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana, a Lepidopteran larva known as the Mopane Worm is regularly consumed. The worm (Figure 3) is the larva of the African Emperor Moth (Imbrasiabelina)and is harvested from its host plant, the mopane tree (Colophospermum mopane)during the rainy season, when the moth lays its eggs (Science Magazine for Africa, 2005). The quantity of mopane worms that are harvested varies depending on the amount of rain that an area receives. Collectors depend on heavy for a bountiful harvest. Typically, there is only a single rainy season, so the worms are only harvested once a year, in December. In some years a secondary rainy season occurs, and the worms may be harvested a second time at the end of March or the beginning of April (Toms & Thagwana, 2005). After the caterpillars hatch, they grow in 4 to 6 weeks and undergo a series of molts, each of which is called an instar. They are harvested when they reach the 5thinstar before they reach their pupal stage (Gondo, Frost, Kozanayi, StackMushongahande, 2010). The caterpillars are picked off trees, from the ground or shaken from branches. The larvae bear urticating spines, so care must be taken during harvest (IllgnerNel, 2000).

Once harvested, the Mopane Worms must be processed. The first step is to remove the intestines and any food that may not have been digested (Stack,Dorward,Gondo, Frost, TaylorKurebgaseka, 2003). One method for doing this is to put the caterpillar between forefinger and thumb, squeezing on the back of the organism, and pushing forward until the intestines gush out of the mouth. Because of the spines, which cause sores and can stain fingers, different methods of protection have been devised. Sometimes tree bark is used like a glove and is wrapped around the fingers. Gloves are effective in providing protection, but are also expensive (Kozanayi & Frost, 2002). During processing it is important that only the gut contents are removed and that a “yellow substance,” which consumers prefer because of its nutrition value, is not removed (Kozanayi & Frost, 2002).

Figure 1

Mopane worm (Gonimbrasiabelina) on a branch. As one can see, their bodies have many spikes in order to protect themselves.

The second step in processing is cooking the larvae. The mopane worms are roasted, and the spines are removed. One technique of roasting the caterpillars is over a flame, which is time consuming and often leads to burning of the hand (Kozanayi & Frost, 2002). Roasting them can cause hazards to the environment because it exposes the forest to fire, which can cause damage to plants and animals. Therefore, it is common for Zimbabwean officials to prohibit mopane worm processing at collection spots for environmental protection purposes, causing the collectors to prepare them at home (StackGhazoul, 2002). An alternative method to roasting is to place the caterpillars in a rotary dry-roasting drum. This method is more productive because more worms can be roasted at a time. It is safer because it does not have the dangers that come along with roasting them over an open flame (Stack & Ghazoul, 2002). Some people salt and boil the worms as another alternative. Mopane worms prepared this way are less desirable because they still contain the spines and they do not look as appetizing (Kozanayi & Frost, 2002). After being roasted or boiled, they are sun-dried and need to be turned at regular intervals (Overstreet, 2003). Preserved mopane worms can be saved and eaten throughout the year. Mopane worms can be bought canned or packaged in South African markets (Toms, ThagwanaLithole, 2003).

Mopane worms are prepared in different ways. They can be eaten when sun-dried or rehydrated and cooked (DeFoliart, DunkelGracer, 2009). They are sometimes fried in cooking oil and are often served with some type of tomato or chili sauce (DeFoliart, DunkelGracer, 2009). During consumption, it is common to avoid eating the head.

Mopane worms are essential to the diet of many poor people in southern Africa (Kozanayi, & Frost, 2002). The caterpillars do not cost much and are high in protein. In one study, mopane worms were 60.70% raw protein, 16.7% raw fat and 10.72% minerals on a dry weight basis (HeadingsRahnema, 2002). From their investigation Headings and Rahnema concluded that, “These worms are a highly nutritious supplement to the diet of people indigenous to these regions.” Since 15 mopane worms provide an adult’s daily requirement of calcium, iron and riboflavin, people who eat them receive significant nutritional benefits.

Even though so many people come into contact with mopane worms each year, allergic reactions are rarely reported. In one case, by Okezie et al. (2010), a 36-year-old woman from the Tswana tribe of Botswana showed signs of an allergic reaction after ingesting 20 grams of mopane worms. She developed an itchy skin rash, swelling in the body and face, and mild hypotension or deceased blood pressure. This case is peculiar because the subject had never shown atopic syndrome to mopane worms before. She was treated with an intramuscular injection, intravenous hydrocortisone and promethazine via venous line. She also received a saline drip while being observed. She was discharged from the hospital but returned 2 days later with a worsening rash, swelling to the face, nausea, dizziness, yellow eyes and excessive urinating. She admitted to eating a large quantity of mopane worms with her family after her initial reaction and treatment. They confirmed her food allergy and started treatment again. She was advised to stay away from the worm and as a result, she began show signs of improvement.

Mopane worms are a big part of the diets of southern African people, and therefore have a heavy impact on the economy. Sellers gain from mopane worm harvesting because they are free merchandisethat makes money. In Botswana, the mopane worm harvest can earn up to $3.3 million U.S. dollars a year, and provides seasonal jobs for 10,000 people ("Socioeconomics of the Mopane Worm Trade"). Some commercial farm owners in Botswana aim to harvest 5,000 bags of mopane worms a year, the equivalent of 90 million caterpillars (DeFoliart, DunkelGracer, 2009). Southern Africans from a variety of social classes participate in mopane worm harvesting because it is a simple way to make money (Stack, Dorward, Gondo, Frost, TaylorKurebgaseka, 2003). However, in some cases poor families collect mopane worms more frequently than wealthier families. In areas like the Gwanda, Chiredzi and Mwenezi Districts in Zimbabwe, wealthy families don’t have time to collect mopane worms since most spend their time running their businesses (Stack, Dorward, Gondo, Frost, TaylorKurebgaseka, 2003). Even though wealthier families do not harvest mopane worms, they still contribute to the economics of mopane worm business by purchasing them for consumption (Stack, Dorward, Gondo, Frost, Taylor & Kurebgaseka, 2003).

In the last two decades, the instability of the Zimbabwean economy has turned many people to mopane worm harvesting as a source of income. Communities with low-income levels encourage households to take advantage of the ‘free forest resource’ (Stack, Dorward, Gondo, Frost, Taylor & Kurebgaseka, 2003). For this reason, large quantities of mopane worms are harvested each year. The high demand for mopane worms leads to over-harvesting, which endangers the African Emperor moth population. As a result, the population of mopane worms has been decreasing in recent years, and the financial stability of those who rely on harvesting for an income is threatened (TomsThagwana, 2005).

Though large harvests of mopane worms are beneficial to the local economy, it is harmful to the mopane worm population. This is a problem, from both a commercial and wildlife conservation standpoints. Over harvesting disrupts the economy because sellers make a smaller profit if mopane worms are scarce. This also interferes with the chain of life for the mopane worms since they are collected before they can reach adulthood (TomsThagwana, 2005). There are constant droughts in southern Africa that affect the mopane worm population by preventing successful reproduction. These long periods of time without mopane worm reproduction already decrease the population, but add to that the number of mopane worms that are collected each year and the population may eventually become scarce or extirpated and will no longer play a role in the economy (DeFoliart, DunkelGracer, 2009).

Conservationists are coming up with solutions so that local people are able to harvest mopane worms sustainably. One South African conservationist hopes to farm the worms, although practical difficulties remain (DeFoliart, DunkelGracer, 2009). It isdifficult to get the moths to mate in captivity, and they must be protected from predators and parasitoids. His goal is to breed them in a controlled environment, which might help stabilize the population, so that the population will not decrease at such a fast rate. This would prevent themopane wormsfrom being driven to endangerment in the future.

Grasshoppers in Oaxaca, Mexico

In Oaxaca, southern Mexico, Sphenariumpurpurascens, an Orthopteran commonly known as a chapulin,is utilized for food. Chapulines reproduce at a high rate and have a longer life span than ordinary grasshoppers (Cohen, 2009). These grasshoppers are collected from agricultural fields called milpas, especially where maize and alfalfa are grown (MontielIshino & Cohen, 2006). The harvesting period is August through December. Since they are harvested in agricultural areas, they are considered to be semi-domesticated because farmers consider them part of their produce (Cohen, 2009). They are harvested from the fields early in the morning, when the grasshoppers are less active and easier to catch (MontielIshino & Cohen, 2006). Men and young boys collect the grasshoppers by catching them with nets (MontielIshino& Cohen, 2006). The grasshoppers can be harvested at any stage. Newly hatched nymphs are the most sweet to the palate (Cohen, 2009). Fifth instarnymphs and adults are larger and have a different taste. Their taste changes because they migrate from the alfalfa fields to the maize fields, where they are exposed to more sunlight (Cohen, 2009).

Once they are captured, they are cleaned and sorted by size and life stage (MontielIshino& Cohen, 2006). They are put in a dark, dry place without food for a couple of days so that they can rest and rid themselves of waste (Cohen, 2009). This leisure period is important because if they are not rested, they taste bitter, and chilies must be added to cover the taste (Cohen, 2009). They are boiled with garlic, lime and herbs according to taste. They are then toasted on a comal, a type of griddle. The cooking is done by women, who may flavor them by tossing them with lemon and sal de gusano(worm salt), lime with worm salt, plain garlic or plain salt in various combinations (Cohen, 2009). Once cooked, they can either be sold immediately or stored for later use. Most vendors are women, who sometimes store chapulines until there is a high demand for them, so that they can be sold for a higher price (Cohen, 2009).

The way that they are prepared for consumption varies. Poor rural families tend to make simpler dishes, and wealthier families make more complex dishes (MontielIshino & Cohen, 2006). For rural families, chapulinesare typically eaten toasted in a tortilla with salsa (MontielIshino& Cohen, 2006). Wealthier families might make something like crema de chapulines, which is a soup that consists of pureed potatoes, tomatoes, grasshoppers, tortillas and spices (El nuevorincón de los sabores). Chapulines can be used as a topping, snack or main dish (Cohen, 2009). When partaking ofchapulines, the legs are removed, leaving the head and thorax. This allows the consumer to eat the insects without having legs get lodged in their teeth or irritating their throat.

Chapulines are a cheap source of nutrition for rural families in Oaxaca (MontielIshino & Cohen, 2006). Chapulines contain 56-77% protein, 4-11% fat, 2-5% minerals and 9-12% carbohydrates (MontielIshino & Cohen, 2006). As a result, they likely provide significant amounts of protein for some rural families.

Chapulines contribute to the economic and financial stability of many people. During the season, harvesting and selling chapulines is a full time job for some families. Woman process and sell the chapulines while the other family members harvest them in the fields (Cohen, 2009). The demand is so high for chapulines in Oaxaca that vendors buy them from Puebla for re-sale (MontielIshino & Cohen, 2006). Many of the women who sell chapulines in the Oaxacan markets rely on the money to help support their families. A handful of chapulines costs 20 pesos (1.66 USD) and a kilogram costs 90-100 pesos (8.31 USD) (MontielIshino& Cohen, 2006). A family with four to six people can last a few days on a kilo of chapulines (Cohen, 2009). For consumers, chapulines are cheap, and sellers make a good income (MontielIshino& Cohen, 2006). Since they are inexpensive, poor rural families purchase chapulines(Cohen, 2009). A vendor can make up to 100 USD a day from chapulines (MontielIshino, & Cohen, 2006). Chapulines offers jobs to people in regions with few job opportunities (Cohen, 2009). There is even a small export market to parts of the United States like Los Angeles, Columbus, Ohio and New York for Oaxacans who want a taste of home (Cohen, 2009).

Even through chapulines are generally a good source of nutrition, they have recently been found to be contaminated with lead. In 2007, the California Health department issued a warning to consumers, pregnant woman and children in particular, to avoid eating chapulines from Mexico because they have high levels of lead (Lead-Contaminated Chapulines, 2007). Ingesting lead can lead to damage to the central nervous system and to learning disabilities. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that children under the age of 6 be exposed to a maximum of 6 micrograms of lead a day (Lead-Contaminated Chapulines, 2007). If a child were to eat contaminated chapulines, they could ingest 60 times the recommended daily allowance, which could result in health problems.

In 2000, there was an investigation of a lead poisoning outbreakamong immigrants from Oaxaca, Mexico. There have been lead poisoning cases in Mexican sub-populations in Monterey, California (Brown, R. W., & Longoria, 2009). More Hispanic children have elevated blood lead levels than the general population(Brown, R. W., & Longoria, 2009). This makes Hispanic children more vulnerable to lead exposure, and they are included in screening programs in California (Brown, R. W., & Longoria, 2009). Investigators believe that this lead outbreak is linkedto thechapulines.

Investigators found thatchapulines contain up to 300 mg/kg of lead contamination (Villalobos, Merino-Sánchez, Hall, Grieshop, Gutiérrez-Ruiz & Handley, 2009). Investigators looked for what might have caused chapulines to carry so much lead and they came up with two possibilities. One possibility was that lead was blown from lead mines to agricultural fields, contaminating soil, plants and life forms (Villalobos, Merino-Sánchez, Hall, Grieshop, Gutiérrez-Ruiz & Handley, 2009). Another possibility was that the chapulines acquired lead from the lead-glazed cookware in which they were prepared. Tests indicated that there are high levels of lead in mines close to fields where chapulines are collected, but there are no signs of soil contamination (Villalobos, Merino-Sánchez, Hall, Grieshop, Gutiérrez-Ruiz & Handley, 2009). However, experiments confirmed that lead contaminatesfood through grinding spices and using acidic limejuice on cookware during chapulin preparation (Villalobos, Merino-Sánchez, Hall, Grieshop, Gutiérrez-Ruiz & Handley, 2009).


In these two case studies, entomophagy can be seen from different perspectives. In the case of mopane worms, we can see entomophagy from a non-domesticated point of view, where the insects are collected straight from the wild. Since they are a free resource openly utilized by the people, over-harvesting comes into play and threatens the African Emperor moth population. In Oaxaca, chapulines aresemi-domesticated and are collected in a controlled environment that does not harm the chapulin population. However, even though they are acquired by different means, they both play a significant economic role. These insects are important to the nutritional lives of poor people in these societies becausethey are cheap and offer steady amounts of protein.These cases show the importance of entomophagy as a traditionalcomponent of vey different cultures. Even though these are only two case studies, they suggest that entomophagy has been prominentin different cultures in the past and that it may also contribute to the future.