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Biodiversity: Protecting South Africa's insects

Elna Schutz
December 30, 2020

Eating insects is common among many communities around the world. Could DNA barcoding help protect them and culinary traditions for future generations?

A man grabs some thick maize porridge to eat it with cooked and fried grasshoppers, termites and a sauce
Edible insects, consumed by many communities in rural South Africa, are now attracting the interest of scientistsImage: Elna Schutz/DW

Standing underneath a big mango tree in Mopye, a village in north eastern South Africa, Martin Boima is snacking on crunchy dried termites. He’s been eating the insects, known locally as "makeke," since he was a little boy, coaxing them out of their mounds with long strips of grass and drying or frying them. 

Today he is handing out homemade termite protein bars, available in cheese or chocolate flavor, to an excited village crowd. It is part of a series of taste tests he is running through his new insect-based foods business. 

He is joined by Bronwyn Egan, a zoologist from the South African University of Limpopo, who shares his fascination for edible insects, on a culinary and academic level. For the last two years, she has worked closely with Boima and other locals, collecting both their knowledge of nutritious critters, as well as actual specimens. 

Enriching science with traditional knowledge 

She is looking to build up the scientific understanding of these species as a first step to conserving them. Some estimates say up to 40% of insect species could become extinct globally over the coming decades, due to habitat loss as land is converted to intensive agriculture, as well as to urbanization and the use of pesticides.

A woman catches termites by sticking a sliver of a leaf into the mound and pulling them out quickly
Termites are coaxed out of their moundsImage: Elna Schutz/DW

Egan fears poor insect taxonomy in South Africa makes it especially difficult to accurately know the scale of biodiversity being lost there. "We don't even have names for all the things that are being lost on a daily basis," she said.

Enriching science with traditional knowledge, Egan hopes her project will aid conservation for insects that are a particularly valuable food source to communities.

Catching, cooking, and eating insects whole is a common practice in many parts of rural South Africa, including the lush mountainous Bolobedu South area in Limpopo where Boima lives.  He says he "loves insects", for their earthy, nutty-flavor. "Any way that you want to cook them, they're always nice." 

Mopane worm stew cooks on a woodfire
Worm stew is a traditional - and nutritious - dish in Mopye villageImage: Elna Schutz/DW

Boima, as well as other field workers, share the names, whereabouts and behaviors of local edible species with Egan, to support the protection and promotion of the insects and the traditional knowledge he holds dear.

Today he is showing her how he catches his evening meal in the fields beside his village. He shakes plants with a leafy branch, prompting grasshoppers, or "ditšie", to hop out into his waiting hands.   

Barcoding biodiversity

Some of his bounty goes into a plastic bag destined for Egan's laboratory, where she preserves the specimens in alcohol and records their identity information. A selection of the preserved specimens is then sent across the country to Barbara van Asch, senior lecturer in the department of genetics at Stellenbosch University.

Martin Boima holds a bag filled with freshly caught grasshoppers, which will be sent for genetic barcoding
Martin Boima is happy to donate his grasshoppers to help with scientific research Image: Elna Schutz/DW

Van Asch sequences the insects' DNA to create a genetic barcode. This information, together with other classifications such as genus and the scientific name, are then added to databases such as the International Barcode of Life - a global library of genetic information for various species that aims to protect biodiversity.

So far, the Limpopo samples have provided van Asch with nine "ethno-species" - animal groupings identified by local communities rather than Western scientific classification systems. This type of work has been done on other edible insect populations in Asian countries, but African knowledge has often been overlooked by academic science, van Asch explained. "It's like we're bringing them to life," she said. "But only on our side because from the side of the communities they [already] exist." 

Environmental threats 

From the field where he caught the grasshoppers, Boima points to a spot on the other side of a green valley which used to be rich in insect life. Now there are barely any, he explains, and the leaves have started turning brown. He suspects the landowner sprayed pesticides in preparation for converting the land for development or farming.

Martin Boima (left) and Bronwyn Egan eat and discuss various edible insects and insect protein bars
Scientist Bronwyn Egan wants to use traditional knowledge about insects to aid research and conservationImage: Elna Schutz/DW

Egan and van Asch see their identification work as an essential first step in conservation. "If it doesn't have a name, nobody is going to stop a building being put up for a nameless thing," Egan says. They hope this foundation of scientific knowledge will inform researchers and activists who want to track and defend insect populations.  

Commercializing insects  

They also see the potential it has to support the commercialization of insect-based human food and animal feed, which has gained momentum in recent years. Consumers can now buy cricket protein in the US or insect ice cream in South Africa. "They need a very small amount of resources compared to the nutritional value that they hold," said van Asch. 

Insects have been highlighted as a more sustainable alternative meat protein, as they require less water and land, and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Beyond the continued barcoding work, van Asch plans to source funding to set up pilot projects that test how households in South Africa could establish small-scale farms. The results of her research with Egan will help determine which species could be suitable.

A study this year from University of Bonn, Germany, concluded that although insect-farming has potential for growth as a sector, more research is needed into species suitability, as well as the investment and policy frameworks needed to support it.

Yet Egan thinks connecting traditional knowledge from areas like Limpopo to scientific data could help identify which species could be commercialized. For instance, that soldier termites, which appear all year, would be a better choice than the seasonal flying termite.

Boima plans to start selling his termite protein bars soon and eventually hopes to employ others in the area. He is also keen to teach people about the value of this traditional knowledge. "We have to know that those insects are very important to our culture, that we can live because of them," he said. "So we have to take care of them."  

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