/ 18 August 2014

‘Insect farming’ a possible industry for rural communities

Former presidents Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk receive their shared Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
Former presidents Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk receive their shared Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

If you have thongolifha you can leave the meat!” says a middle-aged office worker at Komatiland Forests.

“Thongolifha is number one. Better than Mopane worms or flying ants,” says another woman, a pensioner dressed in the traditional colourful striped attire and beads of the Vhavhenda people. Further south, in a Mapulana village, Max Mathebula exclaims that “even the smell is delicious to me.”

Otherwise known as Encosternum delegorguei or edible stinkbugs, thongolifha may be on your list of least desirable creatures — to have either in the house or in your mouth — but for some cultural groups in southern Africa they are considered a culinary delicacy and are being researched as a possible export product and nutritious food supplement. 

The most widely used name is thongolifha but they are also called tsonônô in Bushbuckridge, meaning “he farts, he is fat”. Sometimes they are referred to by non-eaters as podile, a sePedi and seTswana generic term for all stinkbugs meaning “it is rotten”.

This particular stinkbug, which is the size of a 50c piece, can also be eaten raw as a cure for a hangover, according to most harvesters interviewed during a socio-economic study conducted through the University of the Witwatersrand. 

A very important part of stinkbug preparation is to remove the chemical defence that earns stinkbugs their name. 

The traditional way is to remove the head of a living insect by pushing it off onto a flat rock, gently squeezing the thorax of the decapitated body so that the stink gland pops out, and wiping the gland off onto the rock. Otherwise, you can rinse the wriggling, green stinkbugs under running water while stirring them to cause panic, which makes them release their noxious secretions. Then you transfer them to a pot of water heated to about 50°C for eight minutes, strain the now golden-brown stinkbugs and lay them out to air dry. 

Once you have used one of the above methods to remove their chemical defence, place the stinkbugs on their backs in a frying pan with a little bit of water and salt to taste. They fry in their own fat, giving off a delectable bacon smell and are traditionally eaten as a topping to mealie meal, but are not combined with meat, tomatoes, spinach or onions. Stinkbugs have their own unique taste — a mixture of roasted cashew nuts and prawns — and give a satisfying crunch when you bite into them, releasing a fatty inside. Plus they are a good source of protein, minerals and vitamins. 

Long considered a traditional delicacy of the Vhavhenda people in Limpopo and also the Mapulana in Mpumalanga, stinkbugs are even imported from Zimbabwe and Mozambique to supply the Thohoyandou market in Limpopo. Prices vary: R5 for an air-dried stink-less insect to R20 for a special order of live stinkbugs. 

In about May each year, communities around the Modjadji Cycad Reserve in Thohoyandou in Limpopo, as well as in the hills and valleys below Mariepskop near Klaserie in Mpumalanga, eagerly await the arrival of swarms of stinkbugs. In winter, the stinkbugs will live on riverine vegetation, woodlands, orchards, and gum and pine plantations in sheltered but sunny areas. 

Not only are the stinkbugs a food source, but for many they are a cash injection. One single mother explained that normally she does not sell thongolifha, but this year she decided to sell them to passing traffic so that she could afford to pay for a long drop toilet. Two other women said they sold the bugs when their mud-brick firing business was slow. Some school boys headed for the mountains during the winter school holidays and collected stinkbugs to earn pocket money for purchasing clothes and shoes.

As the winter gets colder, the insects form bunches on the tops of trees and bushes to catch the sun. Harvested between dusk and dawn, the stinkbugs are easy pickings: the cold night-time temperatures make them inactive and they cannot fly away or release their chemical defence. When irritated or threatened, a stinkbug can squirt a potential predator with a liquid spray that smells of rotten almonds, from an oval hole between the middle and back legs. They seem to be able to aim the foul spray at an enemy’s eyes or mouth. Ridges around the hole help to trap the smell for longer, which keeps predatory spiders and insects away. 

If the brown liquid stink enters a cut or wound it irritates and blisters the injury, while a direct hit to the eyes can blur vision for a few days. You can recognise people who prepare stinkbugs for a living: their hands are swollen and stained orange-brown. Long periods of exposure combined with the hard daily chores of a rural life can result in the nail lifting off its bed and the appearance of warts.

Every May, stinkbugs migrate to their over-wintering sites on hill slopes and valleys where they can drink the early morning condensation through the dry season. Although the stinkbugs do not feed on plantsap till September, this is the time when they are the tastiest because their abdomens are full of fatty reserves from their summer feeding. By spring their abdominal fat deposits have diminished, they have a sandy taste and are no longer eaten. 

From September to December, they disperse widely to feed and lay eggs on indigenous trees such as Leadwood (Combretum imberbe), Velvet Bushwillow (Combretum molle) and African Wattle (Peltophorum africanum, sometimes called the Weeping Wattle). Unlike other sap-drinking bugs, which are often agricultural pests that destroy crops, the edible stinkbug has enormous potential benefits, particularly as an income generation opportunity in the impoverished rural areas where it occurs. 

Edible stinkbugs could be developed as a minilivestock and marketed to traditional entomophagous (insect-eating) Asian markets, disguised in processed convenience foods such as breakfast cereals to improve the nutrient content, or used as animal feed. By using less fodder, water and space, insect rearing has a lower environmental footprint than conventional livestock production, and could be developed into a viable revenue stream for South Africa’s rural communities. 

Cathy Dzerefos is a PhD candidate at the  University of the Witwatersrand