Start main page content

Crunchy on the outside, squishy on the inside

- Shaun Smillie

Edible stinkbugs and pre-dawn insect hunts; only for the brave.

Entomophagy is the human practice of eating insects. Not only is the word a mouthful, but the practice holds a potential solution to food insecurity in South Africa and presents possibilities for eco-tourism.

Termites and Mopane worms offer a good alternative source of protein. © Lauren Mulligan  | 

In the hills of Venda, an elusive quarry is the target of a hunt in the pre-dawn of winter. The hunters are on the prowl for clumps of insects that gather in the morning cold for warmth. Known as edible stinkbugs, some consider these insects a delicacy, for which they are willing to pay good money. By winter they are full of fat, which turns them tasty when fried with a bit of salt. 

Munch on a bug for tourism 

Most people have never heard of edible stinkbugs, but Dr Cathy Dzerefos wants to change this. The former Wits PhD student believes that edible stinkbugs could be good for tourism. 

The idea is that tourists would come along on one of those pre-dawn insect hunts, and later – if they are brave enough – feast on what they have collected. 

While entomophagy seems to be a slightly radical form of eco-tourism, it could assist poorer communities and aid conservation. For many city-dwelling South Africans, chomping down on a bug is more of a novelty they might experience at a science fair, or in a restaurant. But for others, insects are a staple and an important source of protein when meat is unaffordable. 

“There are insects out there that people are eating, that we don’t even know about,” says Dzerefos, who is now a researcher at the University of the North West. Recently scientists discovered four more species of insects that local residents in the far north of Limpopo province eat. 

Insects in need of reputation management 

South Africans are not the only ones with a taste for creepy-crawlies. An estimated two billion people regularly munch on as many as 1 900 different species of insects around the world. With so many in the world already eating bugs, scientists are starting to see these potential sources of protein as a solution to global food insecurity. 

But there’s a hitch, says Professor Wayne Twine in the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at Wits. Besides some South Africans being squeamish about chowing down on something with more than four legs, insects also have an image problem. 

“The challenge remains in mainstreaming these cultural uses,” says Twine. “Popularising [entomophagy] with the emerging middle class is a challenge, as there is a stigma attached to edible insects – they are seen as old-fashioned or as poor people’s food.”

Medium to rare, please … 

Working near Acornhoek in Mpumalanga in 2004, Twine and his colleagues found that insects were an important source of protein for families facing hardship. After losing the passing away of the breadwinner, some households turned to insects – mainly locusts – to substitute meat to maintain their protein intake. 

“Insects would be a more sustainable source of protein than cattle feed lots with their methane (emissions),” says Twine. “The use of edible insects could also be intensified, but with a smaller environmental impact.” 

R20 per teacup of stinkbugs 

The insects that might lend themselves to farming in South Africa include mopane worms, termites, and locusts. Edible stinkbugs are more localised, which is why Dzerefos feels going the tourism route might be a money-spinner. 

These small shield-shaped bugs are usually found near Thohoyandou and Ga-Modjadji in Limpopo and Bushbuckridge in Mpumalanga, but they are traded widely. “We know of people who will phone in their orders from the cities,” says Dzerefos. Sacks of dried edible stinkbugs are transported to market on mini bus taxis. In Thohoyandou, a teacup filled with dried stinkbugs can cost R20. 

“They are said to be good for a hangover,” laughs Bianca Mkhize, who works with Dzerefos and is studying the use of edible insects in tourism. 

There is concern that habitat loss could threaten these bugs and in Zimbabwe, villagers use ‘caretakers’ to protect the critters. In the Jiri forest, these caretakers ensure ethical and sustainable harvesting practices, and Dzerefos believes that making stinkbugs a tourism commodity would help their conservation. 

“Look, people come to see butterflies. Why won’t they come to see edible stinkbugs?” asks Mkhize. 

Cooking like your grandmother used to cook 

There is a skill to harvesting insects and cooking them, and this worries Mkhize. 

Take the edible stinkbug, for example. It gets its name from an unpleasant smelling chemical that stains hands yellow and can even cause temporary blindness. The stinkbug is only edible if this chemical is removed. This is done by beheading the stinkbug and squeezing the chemical out, or by putting the bug in warm water. 

This kind of knowledge, passed down from one generation to the next, is disappearing. “This is why there is still a lot of indigenous knowledge that still needs to come out,” says Mkhize. 

  • Shaun Smillie is a freelance journalist.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the sixth issue, themed: #HungerGames where our researchers and academics unpack the latest research on food security, food science, food politics and governance, nutrition and food-related issues such as obesity, diets, breastfeeding, and body image.