Hypothesizing About Palm Weevil and Palm Rhinoceros Beetle Larvae as Traditional Cuisine, Tropical Waste Recycling, and Pest and Disease Control on Coconut and Other Palms – – – Can They Be Integrated?
In their book on Cameroon cuisine, Grimaldi and Bikia (1985) describe their recipe for “coconut larvae” as a “favorite dish offered only to good friends” (see recipe, page 3). The flavor of “palmworms” (fat, legless larvae of the weevil genus Rhynchophorus) has been appreciated throughout the tropical world for centuries. There are a number of species, but the major ones from the standpoint of wide distribution and use as food are Rhynchophorus palmarum in the Western Hemisphere, R. phoenicis in Africa, and R. ferrugineus in Asia.
Newcomers to the Caribbean region were particularly effusive about palmworms. Bancroft (1769:239), in his “Natural History of Guiana,” wrote that the larvae are “esteemed a delicate morsel, not only by the aboriginal Natives, but by many of the White Inhabitants, particularly the French, who roast them before the fire, and mix them with crumbs of bread, salt, and pepper.” Smeathman (1781:167-69), who was working in West Africa at the time and had taken a particular fancy to the taste of the termite, Macroterimes bellicosus, said of the termites, “they are something sweeter, but not so fat and cloying as the [palmworrn] which is served up at all the luxurious tables of West Indian epicures, particularly of the French, as the greatest dainty of the Western world.” And Stedman (1796:22-23) in Suriname, remarked that, “However disgusting to appearance, these worms are a delicious treat to many people, and they are regularly sold at Paramaribo.” Stedman later related (p. 115) that: “We here found concealed near the trunk of an old tree a case-bottle filled with excellent butter, which the rangers told me they made by melting and clarifying the fat of the palm-tree worms: this fully answers all the purposes of European butter, and I found it in fact even more delicious to my taste.”
Indigenous populations throughout the tropics have prized palmworms no less than have Europeans, and in the case of R. palmarum, Chagnon (1968:30-32) in Venezuela/Brazil, Clastres (1972:160-61) in Paraguay, and Beckerman (1977) and Dufour (1987) in Colombia have reported primitive cultivation systems for the larvae. Chagnon reports: “The Yanomamo come very close to practicing ‘animal domestication’ in their techniques of exploiting this food. They deliberately cut the palm tree down in order to provide fodder for the insect. When they cut the tree, they also eat the heart of the palm, a very delicious, crunchy vegetable that slightly resembles the taste of celery hearts. One palm we cut yielded an edible heart of about 50 pounds. After the pith has been allowed to decay for several months, it contains numerous large, fat, white grubs. The pith is dug out of the tree with sticks, broken open by hand, and the grubs extracted …. A fair-sized palm tree will yield three or four pounds of grubs, some of them as large as a mouse. The grubs are wrapped in small packages of leaves and placed in the hot coals to roast.” Chagnon was told by a missionary that the grubs taste very much like bacon.
The Guayaki of Paraguay, according to Clastres, consider the palm larvae as “more than a food gathered by chance in the forest; rather, it is the product of a sort of cultivation. The Indians knock down the palm tree, leaving a stump about 3 feet high. They then generally cut the fallen trunk into sections 10 or 12 feet long, preparing the wood for the insects …. Each man is the owner of his larvaebed …. This private property is almost always respected and no one touches the larvae of another. Later, the harvest is divided and eaten collectively. Thus the Guayaki distribute a relatively abundant supply of food …. It is of great interest to see that the Guayaki, despite their being nomads, establish a fixed source of food to be gathered much later. In doing so, they are obliged to return to the cultivation area after many months of travelling …. This cultivation of guchu therefore exerts a profound influence upon the wandering habits of the Guayaki in that it gives an order to their travels.”
In Colombia, Beckerman (1977) reported that the Bari Indians use only Jessenia palm as a “grub farm.” The trees are cut down and the logs left lying in the forest. “In two or three months the whole trunk is infested with the edible larvae …. Several hundred grams of larvae can be extracted from a single trunk. . . . ” Dufour (1987) reported that “The Tatuyo felled palms to harvest the fruits, and often returned at a later date to harvest the larvae which subsequently developed in the pith. Palms were also cut specifically with the expectation that they would be invaded by weevils and the larvae ready to harvest in two or three months. Thus, the larvae were both a by-product of the harvesting of palm fruits and ‘cultivated.”‘ Dufour reported a live weight of 3-16 grams for the grubs and a maximum acquisition rate of 2,000 g/hour.
With this gustatory background, let’s look at another dimension of palm weevils, restricting temporarily to the Western Hemisphere. Rhynchophorus palmarum is one of the most dangerous pests of coconut and oil palms in Latin America and the Caribbean, mining the trunks of the trees and transmitting the nematode, Rhadinaphelenchus cocophilus, which is the causal agent of red-ring disease (RRD) (Morin et al 1986, and others). The weevil infests many other species of palms, both wild and cultivated, as well as sugarcane and several root and fruit crops (Hagley 1965, and others). Hill (1983) describes the damage from the weevils as follows: “The larvae burrow in the crown of the palm, feeding on the young tissues, and sometimes destroy the growing point when the palm will die. The leaves turn chlorotic and die, and the trunk becomes tunneled and weakened, and may break in a storm.”
Schuiling and van Dinther(1981) provide a good entry to the extensive literature on RRD. The coconut palm may die within 3-4 months after the appearance of external symptoms which include yellowing fermentation emanating from wounds in healthy palms or from the decay of dead or diseased palms, all injured or decaying trees are removed and traps are constructed along the edge of a plantation from cut pieces of thinning, wild palms or uninfested parts of damaged or diseased trees. Whole trunks of oil-palms, which are very thick, can be cut into cubes and left in small heaps; but only the tender apical 1-2 meters of the thinner but tougher trunks of wild and coconut palms are used. They are split into longitudinal sections and intercrossed into piles with the bud on top. Trap heaps should be renewed weekly, either by replacement with other palm pieces and burning of the old infested ones, or by spraying with palm sap to maintain attractiveness and also with 0.15% methomyl to prevent the piles from becoming a source of infestation.
At the Paricatuba oilpalm estate in Para, Brazil, according to Schuiling and van Dinther (1981), palm losses from RRD were held to 1. 14% of palms in the susceptible age group through the program