In previous posts, I have highlighted some of the insects I observed on a trip to South Africa in November-December 1999. All of the photos I have shown to this point were taken at Borakalalo National Park in North West Province or at the Geelhoutbos farm of Susan Strauss below the Waterberg Range in the formerly Northern, now Limpopo Province. Both of these locations are deep inside the bushveld, providing ample opportunity to observe an incredible diversity of insect life. This is not to say that insects, even spectacular ones, cannot be found in more urban areas. During the weekend between those two mini-expeditions, I stayed with my friend and colleague, Chuck Bellamy, at his home in Pretoria, a beautiful city with lovely architecture, elegant gardens… and some very impressive bugs! The bug in this photo was found on a tree in a shrubby enclave, and at well over 35 mm in length it is easily the largest leaf-footed bug (order Hemiptera, family Coreidae) that I have ever seen. Its chunky build, velvety black coloration with thin yellow lines along the sides and down the center of the thorax, and greatly enlarged hind femora quickly led me to a provisional identification of a male Petascelis remipes, or giant twig wilter. This ID was confirmed by my friend and colleague Harry Brailovsky, an entomologist at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) and world expert on Coreidae (and who, incidentally, just recently published a review of this Afrotropical genus – Brailovsky 2008).
According to Picker et al. (2002), these insects are found on plants in the genus Combretum. Like most species in the family, they have scent (“stink”) glands that provide defensive capabilities. Adults are gregarious and bold, walking towards intruders with antennae vibrating when disturbed, and they are apparently capable of squirting their defensive secretions for some distance. The nymphs are black as well but futher advertise their noxiousness with warning coloration of red spots on a whitish background. Interestingly, and despite their powerful chemical defenses, this species is considered a delicacy in parts of Mozambique where it is known as Magodo. In a post called Insects for Dinner (in a blog with the eerily similar title, Beating about the Bush), Bart Wursten of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique describes how local folk burn small patches of the grassland in which these insects are found to smoke them out and catch them. The Magodo hunters kill the bugs by breaking off the head and removing the scent glands, which releases a very strong almond-like smell. In doing this, the locals are able to catch considerable quantities of the bugs, which they eat with supper.
Lest you believe such practices are an anomaly, van Huis (2003) has compiled a list of about 250 insect species used as food in sub-Saharan Africa. Lepidoptera, Orthoptera and Coleoptera represented the bulk (78%) of species eaten, with Isoptera, Hemiptera, Hymenoptera, Diptera and Odonota making up the rest. Several examples of toxic insects and the traditional methods used to remove the poisons were given. It was noted that whether or not insects are eaten depends not only on taste and nutritional value, but also on customs and ethnic preferences or prohibitions. I’m not one to shy away from the thought of eating insects – after all, shrimp are just bugs that live in water, and insects rank far lower in ‘slime factor’ than many other invertebrates (e.g., oysters) that enjoy great popularity in our culture. I’ve eaten roasted beet armyworm (Spodoptera exigua) pupae and munched on chocolate covered ants, but that’s kid stuff – the armyworms tasted like the soy sauce in which they were roasted, and the ants tasted like, well… chocolate. I did once eat a softshelled crab (alive!), and I actually hope to one day taste the enormous grub of the giant metallic ceiba borer, Euchroma gigantea, eaten by indigenous cultures in Central and South America. Still, I think I’d need a lot of faith in my chef’s scent gland removal prowess before I started scarfing Magodo down like popcorn.
What insects have you eaten?
Brailovsky, H. 2008. Notes on the genus Petascelis Signoret and description of one new species (Hemiptera: Heteroptera: Coreidae: Coreinae: Petascelini). Zootaxa 1749:18–26.
Picker, M., C. Griffiths and A. Weaving. 2002. Field Guide to Insects of South Africa. Struik Publishers, Cape Town, 444 pp.
van Huis, A. 2003. Insects as food in sub-Saharan Africa. Insect Science and Its Application 23(3):163-185.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009