Book Review: [Insects as Food for Man] Tango Muyay

Tango Muyay describes the 50+ species of insects eaten by the Yansi, a group of people living in an area of central Zaire strecthing approximately 200 km southeast from the city of Bandundu. It is the first detailed account of the insects consumed in this area. The area comprises parts of what used to be Banningville and Kikwit territories, where Gomez el al. (1961, p. 728) reported annual protein production from insects to be 10,426 kg and 259,069 kg respectively, accounting respectively for 3% and 60% of total animal protein production.

Aided by his mother and wife, Tango Muyay spent over a year gathering information about each species’ life and habits, and their roles in Yansi diet and culture. As rationale for undertaking the study, he quotes from two entomology books that fail to recognize the importance of insects as food. Les Insectes comme Aliments de I’Homme is a valuable contribution toward setting the record straight.

In the introduction, the author discusses the importance of edible insects to the Yansi, methods used for conserving insects, and the commercial importance of caterpillars. That the Yansi recognize the nutritional value of insects is illustrated by an old Yansi saying: “caterpillars and meat play the same role in the human body” (p. 9). The author emphasizes that unlike large game animals, insects are easy to catch and readily available throughout the year. Hence the saying: “As food, caterpillars are regulars in the village but meat is a stranger” (p. 10). A table (p. 28) lists many of the species available each month. The main season is December-January.

Several methods are described for conserving insects (p. 11). Some species are preserved alive for weeks or even months. “Mimpoo,, caterpillars are placed in the thatch roofs of houses where they make their “nests” and can be kept alive for up to 6 months. Beetle larvae are sometimes kept in pots where they fatten on manioc flour for 3 or 4 weeks. Three species of caterpillars (“misa,” “inkukabi,” and “mindan”) are sometimes taken from the forest at a young age to be raised on village trees to maturity. “Nseol” palm grubs can be kept alive in oil where they grow fatter and fatter until ready to be eaten several weeks later.

Beetle larvae, grasshoppers, black crickets, termites, and many caterpillars are dried in the sun, then over a fire for long-term preservation. Drying in this manner appears to be the preferred method for preparing insects for sale to commercial vendors. The author warns that poorly-preserved caterpillars are subject to attack by maggots (p. 12).

In preserving insects or preparing them for direct consumption, the intestines of species with a lot of excrement are first purged. Species without excrement are highly esteemed (p. 21).

Tango Muyay emphasizes the increasing importance of insects in commerce, particularly the contribution of certain caterpillar species. One of the species for sale in the Bandundu market in January 1981, “mingwel”, was purchased from merchants in Kikwit, over 250 km to the southeast (pp. 12-13). Tango Muyay reports that “mingwel” come from the Tshokwe and that the original Yaka and Mbala name for this species is “mangolu” (p. 34). It is interesting to note that Leleup and Daems (1969) report that “mangolo” is the name used for two similar caterpillars exported from the Kwango district which lies to the south and west of Kikwit. The form that matures in September is Cirina forda (Attacidae = Saturniidae) which feeds on Erythrophleum africanum. Tango Muyay relates that in years gone by the ancestors walked “for days and days to go collect mingwel in Yaka territory” (p. 34).

The author notes that some of the species described in this book have relatively recently become adopted into Yansi cuisine due to the influence of their neighbors the Mbala (p. 13). Included in this category are “makul” larvae, “kebamwe” beetles, and a number of grasshoppers (p. 147).

The main part of the book is a species by species description of the insects eaten by the Yansi, divided into separate chapters on caterpillars, larvae, adult beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, aquatic insects, and termites. The author provides a wide range of information related to each species’ use as food, including notes on food plants, behavior, abundance, and periods of availability. Considerable attention is devoted to how and by whom each species is collected, cooked and consumed. Carefully recorded songs (a total of 70), stories, and sayings illustrate the importance of each species within Yansi culture. Songs and sayings are recorded in the Yansi language, accompanied by a French translation and explanation. Line drawings are provided for most species. Unfortunately no scientific names are included.

Over three-fifths of the book is devoted to caterpillars; approximately 33 species are described.

Tango Muyay reports that most caterpillar species feed on one or more species of trees and shrubs, a few feed on grasses, and one each on a fern and on a couple of species of palm trees. In contrast to other peoples in Africa who base the names of edible caterpillars on the names of their specific host plants (Malaisse and Parent, 1980; Silow, 1976), the Yansi often refer to trees by the caterpillars that feed on them. For example, the tree that the “musa” caterpillar feeds on is called “muthe musa’ (p. 19).

For the most part caterpillars are collected by women and children. Men participate when trees are too tall for women and children to climb. However, men are beginning to harvest caterpillars for sale in cities. In 1981 over 20 men supplied Bandundu with 2 or 3 sacks of caterpillars per month, transporting them by bicycle from the villages into town (p. 12).

Tango Muyay emphasizes the importance of caterpillars in the diets of children. In at least eight species descriptions he mentions that most of the caterpillars are either specifically reserved for children or eaten mostly by them. He notes that caterpillars that are not abundant are preferentially given to children (p. 56). That children enjoy eating caterpillars is revealed through several children’s songs. For example: “Father you have to give me some “milee” caterpillars …. Look at all the other children with milee caterpillars that their fathers gave them …. I’m going to bother you until you give me some” (p. 57).

The major method employed by the Yansi to insure an abundant supply of edible caterpillars appears to be the regulation of the onset of harvest through the use of a fetish called “kehal” (pp. 24, 76). When the chief notices young caterpillars of important species beginning to develop, he places the kehal in the forest where they are found. No one is allowed to harvest the caterpillars until the kehal is removed when the caterpillars have reached near-maximum size. Tango Muyay reports that in cases where the kehal was violated, the chief levied heavy fines. Regulation of the start of the caterpillar season also occurs in Zambia (Holden, 1986). In some cases Yansi laws have been enacted that prohibit the cutting of tree branches as a means of harvesting caterpillars from certain species of trees (p. 73). Yansi women sometimes set fires in the savanna to promote fresh regrowth that will serve to promote an abundance of “minsweyi” caterpillars (p. 45). Other authors (Leleup and Daems, 1969; Gomez et al., 1961) have likewise recognized the importance of fires in regulating edible caterpillar populations.

Although many caterpillar species are described as well-liked or tasting delicious (e.g., “minsweyi” p. 44, “mimen” p. 50, “mitoon” p. 113), some edible caterpillars are not esteemed by all Yansi. Tango Muyay reports that some people eat “mibam,” which taste sour, only because they are abundant and appear at a time of year when other foods are scarce (p. 73). Adults refrain from giving species with dangerous hairs (“misweswe” p. 29,”mimpoo” p. 29, and “nkool nzil’ p. I I 1) to children. The hairs of these species must be singed off prior to cooking. Failure to do so can provoke swelling of the throat leading to death according to one story (p. 32). One caterpillar species is reported to cause headaches (p. 22).

Five types of edible larvae are described (pp. 114-119). Four are beetle larvae, of which two (“makul ba” and “nseol’) are associated with palm trees, one (“makul makul”) with dead trees and the other (‘bengweri’) with swamp plants. ‘Makul ba” develop into ‘kebamwe” beetles which appear to be rhynchophorus sp. (drawing p. 109). Makul makul are described as eaten in large quantities and reported to be liked by everybody as are bengweri larvae. As with caterpillars and adult beetles, when larvae are found in small quantities, they are generally given to children. Nseol and makul makul can be detected by their characteristic odors and sounds, or by their feces. Bengweri develop into “bensiim”, adult beetles which are also eaten, mostly by children. Children also eat “bentiey,” which appear to be spittlebugs (drawing p. 105).

Tango Muyay reports that adult beetles are very important to the Yansi. Four types are described: “kial”, “kwer”, “kebamwe”, and “bensim” (pp. 120-135). Kial, which appear to be Augosoma sp. (drawing p. 109), are described as well-liked. They appear in the dry season and can be collected around street lights or by cutting down a particular vine to which they are attracted. A palm wine collector is quoted as saying “Kebamwe and their larvae are our preferred food. We also like to give them to our children because they contain a lot of protein” (p. 126).

Two kinds of edible crickets are described (pp. 136-146). One is probably Brachytrupes membranaceus (drawings, pp. 125, 127). It has several different names, depending on the growth stage. They are found around villages and in fields. Tango Muyay reports that they are especially abundant where women have left manioc root peelings on which the crickets feed. Children dig up some young crickets; most are captured after they reach maturity in November and December and when a second generation matures in May. Brachytrupes crickets are captured by digging them out of their burrows with hoes, by hunting at night with lamps, and by sliding a small noose down their burrows. A woman can reportedly catch 50 to 80 crickets per day. The intestinal contents are removed prior to cooking.

The other edible crickets are called “betel musir,” which means black crickets. Tango Muyay reports that these are found in large quantities in the forests in February after the main caterpillar harvest is over. It is said that the droppings of the caterpillars promote the apparition of black crickets. Black crickets are captured during the day and at night. To capture the crickets at night, men first clear pathways in forests where caterpillars were abundant; women catch the crickets by hand as they feed on manioc leaves previously left along the trail. In a single night a woman can catch 300 or 400 crickets or more. When many black crickets are caught, some are preserved by smoke-drying. Traders buy them for sale in large towns.

Tango Muyay reports that grasshoppers (pp. 147-150) are not an important source of food for the Yansi. Until recent times, they ate only four species. Now, however, under the influence of their neighbors the Mbala, who eat many more species of grasshoppers, the Yansi eat additional species. The new species are collected dead following savanna fires. They do not have specific names but are simply called “mpay”, which means “grasshopper.”

The four named species are all migratory. One of them, mayaay, is no longer found in the area. Another, mieyi, has become quite rare such that some young people are no longer aware of its existence. The other two are mostly eaten by children.

Tango Muyay reports that the Yansi eat four types of aquatic insects (pp. 151-158) including a waterscorpion (drawing, p. 144). Aquatic insects are eaten almost exclusively by women, who catch them mostly in small quantities while fishing or soaking manioc in streams. Following Yansi classification, Tango Muyay includes in his discussion several species of shrimps, 2 species of crabs, and a spider.

Tango Muyay explains that the Yansi word for termite, “twe,” means “let’s go.” Yansi ancestors gave them the name in recognition of the need for quick action to catch winged termites as they precipitously leave their mounds (p. 159).

The Yansi recognize several categories of termites, corresponding to different species and castes. “Twe musiem” (pp. 159-166) are imago nymphs found in large old mounds. Tango Muyay’s informer states that only women are allowed to harvest twe musiem. Mounds are suspected of containing nymphs ready to be harvested when workers can be seen reconstructing the mound. Most mounds are dug in August. To get the termites, women break the mound open with hoes. Two or three buckets-full can be collected from a single mound, weighing 10 to 15 kg each. Sometimes mounds contain less than half a bucket-full.

Tango Muyay affirms that “nymphs are so delicious. With their protein and their taste, nymphs constitute a good meal for children.”

Because twe musiem are generally found in sufficient quantity to last for several meals, those that are not consumed right away are boiled in small packages. These can keep for two or three days without going bad. To keep twe musiem for longer the boiled packets are preserved by drying. Dried termites can be kept for several months. Some people sell dried twe musiem in cities.

“Twe ndeol” (pp. 166-168) are described as imagos that emerge from soil, not from tall mounds. They are collected for eating as they emerge in swarms during the rainy season. The quantity collected is usually less than a full pot. Young men collect twe ndeol for use in attracting birds which are caught with a sticky substance applied to perches arranged near the exposed termites.

‘Benseami” imagos (pp. 168-173) are found in small red termite hills. They are caught in April and May, after twe ndeol have finished swarming. Like twe ndeol they are used to catch birds and are usually found in such small quantities that there is no need to preserve them for more than a day or two.

The queen termite (p. 174) is captured when women dig twe musiem. It is usually presented to one of their husbands who in turn gives it to the little children. If there is a nursing child in the family, the queen is usually reserved for him/her.

Two types of soldiers are eaten (p. 174), a black type found in the forest and a brown type found in the savanna. To collect soldiers, women dig around the mound with hoes, using fire to kill the termites as they emerge to attack their assailants. Soldiers are often cooked with mushrooms or manioc leaves. According to the author, they make mushrooms and manioc leaves taste delicious.

Most of the available literature on the use of insects as food in Africa comes from non-native observers. Les Insectes comme Aliments de I’Homme is perhaps the most comprehensive documentation of the dietary and cultural importance of edible insects written from within that culture. It is clear from this work that the consumption of insects by the Yansi is not a vestige of the past but an integral part of Yansi culture and an important source of food in the present. Especially relevant in this regard are the increasing importance of insects in commerce, the current consumption of a number of species not eaten in the past.

If ants can be trusted as gourmets (they certainly show up often enough at picnics), more people should be sampling the delights of silkworm pupae (Bombyx mori). Dr. Ted Shapas recently brought it to our attention that, since 1987, the American Cyanamid Company has had a patent on the use of the pupae in insect bait products, including its Pharaoh Ant Killer. Preferred compositions range from 30-50% of dry pupae on a weight basis. When 36 bait compositions were tested experimentally, the three containing ground dry silkworm pupae were far more attractive than any of the others. The “others” included such delectables as ground krill, dried daphnia, dried shrimp, cheese, meat extract, blood meal, bone meal, corn grits, soybeans, flour and 17 formulations of fishmeal. The initial screening was on the ant Monomorium pharaonis, but the fantastic results held up when tested on three other species, Lasis,, niger, Pheidole nodus and Tetraporium coespitum.