The Mopane worm
Article and photos by David Gracer
Humanity’s fascination with insects reflects the fact that insects influence human life in many ways. Without the pollination provided by honeybees and other insects, for example, there would not be enough crops to feed the world. On the other hand, without mosquitoes and other flies there would be far fewer deaths from Malaria and other diseases. While these benefits and health threats are very important, there are other ways in which insects hold sway over human life. Edible insects have been culturally important throughout much of the world, both in ancient times and presently. Despite the epic shifts of the twentieth century, much of humanity still relies on insects as an essential food source. There are many good reasons for this, including nutrition and reduced environmental degradation.
Caterpillars of Imbrasia belina locally known in South Africa as the Mopane Worm.
Insects are eaten throughout Africa. Along with grasshoppers, termites, and others, at least forty types of caterpillars are utilized as food across much of Africa; the most widespread of these is the mopane worm, the larva of Imbrasia belina, a large and lovely saturnid moth. Named after the mopane tree (Colophospermum mopane), their food source, the mopane [or mopani] worm is appears to be the most collected and sold edible insect species in the world. This insect is harvested in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, and probably other countries. Although some may find it slightly odd to refer to the insects as "worms" since they are so clearly caterpillars, it follows the general custom. Consider the popular use of the term "silkworm," the caterpillar of another moth species.
From available information it seems that the mopane worm is the single most harvested species of edible insect, despite the fact that this harvest has not been mechanized. Instead the caterpillars are picked by hand, somewhat like fruit, generally just prior to pupation. Although they have at times been taken earlier, they’re neither as delectable nor as nutritious earlier in their life cycle, and it has been observed that this is why they still exist as a species. The worms are picked from the branches of mopane trees and squeezed, ejecting the gut contents. This is a messy undertaking, and the caterpillar’s spines can cause scratches and sores on the picker’s hands. The emptied worms are boiled in salted water and dried in the sun, after which point they have been said to keep indefinitely without spoilage (which is mostly true.)
This dried product is exported to Paris and Brussels – from just where I have not fully determined, but South Africa is a likely source – possibly to satisfy the appetites of emigrant Africans in those cities. I have found no suppliers of mopane in the U.S. and I myself am extremely interested in changing this. My perusals of governmental regulations and brief conversations with authorities on the subject confirm that there is no particular reason why processed mopane worm would be categorically barred from entry into the United States. Even so, such a shipment might be seized at the customs depot simply because there’s no established precedent.
The mopane worm is a fitting emblem of Sunrise Land Shrimp, which is my business endeavor. It is traditional, having stood the test of time. Moreover, the harvesting of mopane does not degrade the landscape, something that cannot be said for large-mammal production like cattle and pig farming. In fact it’s very likely that proper management of the species could provide sufficient amounts to feed all comers. The fact that mopane is so popular throughout much of Africa made me yearn to try some for myself; the fact that I could not spare the travel costs made this a difficult goal. Despite the fact that most Americans find the idea of eating insects disgusting, I believe that there’s a small market for this product.
In my efforts to obtain dried (or possibly canned) mopane worms I sent several hundred emails. Finally in the summer of 2005 I received a small amount of processed mopane worm. They arrived without incident, perhaps because they had been personally carried from Harare, Zimbabwe to England and then shipped. Sadly, this shipment – about a quarter-kilo – was a one-time deal, so I am absolutely interested in communicating with anyone who can help with a steadier supply of dried mopane.
Of course I tried some of the mopane immediately, and the caterpillars are…. definitely interesting. I had them both dry and stewed with veggies and cornmeal, in what I had read was a typical South African recipe. Dry they’re very earthy and rock-like – not the first thing one would pick as the perfect snack. Someone who claimed to know said they tasted like dog biscuit. Cooked they’re smoky-flavored and still earthy and tough: in texture (and taste) like a cross between mushrooms and jerky. I suspect that a less enthusiastic palate would perceive only the taste of dirt, but that someone with polished culinary skills could make them absolutely delicious.
I relocated the remaining portion of the shipment to a large glass jar. Somehow, however, I had failed to notice the odd dust that formed on the bottom of that jar. When, finally, I did notice the dust, I assumed that it was simply the tiny bits of dried caterpillar that had flaked away as a result of transcontinental transit. But such was not the case; once I faced the fact that my cherished mopane had arrived infested with tiny-yet-rather-attractive-copper-colored beetles, I knew that that dust was frass, a rather neutral term for insect excrement.
Did the discovery of these beetles diminish my determination to eat the mopane? Not in the least. Mostly I was annoyed that insects were trying to muscle me out of my edible insects. (Of course on the other hand there’s the amusing notion that I could eat TWO kinds of insects in the same bite!) I had intended to save some of the mopane to show at my presentations, so having them consumed was undesirable. The other concern I felt was the possibility that I might have accidentally imported a new invasive species. A helpful gentleman from the Connecticut Entomological Society identified the beetles. They are Tribolium confusum, the confused flour beetle (so named not because the beetle itself is confused, but rather for the difficulty with which it is differentiated from a similar species), a world-wide pest of various human foods. I found this quite reassuring.
My company’s goal stretch out before me; there are always more people with whom to share the joys of entomophagy, the fancy term for insect-eating. This practice is much more sustainable than the consumption of cows, pigs, and other large mammals. And as already observed, most of the world can see the logic of consuming the most ubiquitous animals on the planet; animals that, by and large, do not need to be tended and given vast amounts of water and feed; that do not take years to mature, or have small numbers of offspring. Mopane have entered the culture through proverbs, songs and fables; they have been the subjects of paintings, sculptures, and postage stamps. In closing, although this article concerns the mopane worm, many South Africans enthusiastically consume a variety of other insects; also, caterpillars from a variety of other families are consumed in Africa, and Saturnid caterpillars are eaten in other continents.