If you enjoy game viewing, you will know about the “Big Five”, but many will not know the “Big Twelve”. Meet the mopane worm – one of the “Big Twelve” African insects.
Once a year, from mid November till the end of December, our bush becomes infested with some very special worms -the mopane worm. Here in the Lowveld this period seems to start the beginning of the festive season for the local indigenous people. Everyone is out and about scaling fences (as boundaries mean nothing) and harvesting mopane worms. It’s a free for all!
These worms are named after their main food source – the mopane tree, although they do also feast on other plants including mango trees. When standing quietly around sunrise and sunset in a mopane rich area you can even hear the worms eating. That may give you an idea of how many there are.
The “mopane worm” Imbrassia belina is probably the most important insect in southern Africa from a cultural point of view. Here it is well-known as either Mashonzha, Masonja or Amasonja. It forms the basis of a multi-million rand trade in edible insects, providing a livelihood for many harvesters, traders and their families. However, the industry is not without problems. Droughts devastate the harvest on a regular basis and there are areas where overexploitation has led to local extinctions.
The mopane worm has a complex life cycle in which there is complete metamorphosis. The eggs are laid by a large and attractive moth, the mopane emperor moth. Small worms hatch from the eggs and moult a few times before they reach maturity, the stage most sought after for harvesting. The worms that are not harvested leave the trees and pupate underground. The life cycle is completed when the adult moths emerge from the pupae, mate and lay eggs. If the cycle is broken at any point by excessive harvesting, for example, it will not be possible to maintain a sustainable harvest.
Containing 60% protein and significant amounts of phosphorus, iron and calcium, it is unrivalled as an easily obtainable source of free food. The traditional method of preserving mopane worms is to dry them in the sun or smoke them, giving additional flavour. Dried mopane worms can be eaten raw as a crisp snack. Alternatively, mopane worms can be soaked to rehydrate, before frying until crunchy or cooking with onion, tomatoes and spices and serving with pap (a thick savoury maize/corn porridge). The flesh is yellow, and the gut may still contain fragments of dried leaf, which is not harmful to humans. The taste is somewhat reminiscent of tea leaves.
Lets go eat worms!
- Dining on insects: Anyone for crickets…? (independent.co.uk)