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Tradition and science collaborate to help identify edible grasshoppers

Most people would probably turn up their noses at a dish of grasshoppers, but residents in rural communities in Limpopo love to tuck into these insects, which are a key part of their diet and cultural traditions. And they have different ways of preparing their favourite grasshopper meals.

They usually catch the grasshoppers by hand, pluck off their hindlegs and collect them in buckets. After the grasshoppers have been rinsed, they are fried in a pan, usually over a fire, salted and eaten as a snack. Sometimes they are also cooked with tomato and onions to be eaten as an evening meal with pap.

Preparing grasshoppers for cooking by rinsing, in Giyani Limpopo Province

What is also interesting is that people in these communities use local species identifiers and vernacular names (ethnospecies) to identify edible grasshoppers. These names are specific to the language of the community and often differ from one place to the next.

According to researchers from Stellenbosch University, the University of Limpopo and the University of Strasbourg (France), some of the edible grasshopper species harvested from the wild could be suitable candidates for mass-rearing.

“Being an already well-known food resource, commercial exploitation of grasshoppers could assist in addressing food insecurity, elevating traditional food cultures, and promoting economic development in South Africa.

“The problem is, however, that edible grasshoppers in the country are largely uncharacterised, making it challenging to link nutritional properties and biological characteristics with species names; this, in turn, hinders progress of potential commercialisation.”

Grasshoppers being cooked with pap

The researchers point out that commercial rearing of grasshoppers is almost non-existing in Africa as opposed to Asia where farming of edible insects has helped to lift many people out of poverty. They cite as an example a study published in 2013 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations which showed that 20 000 insect farming enterprises were registered in Thailand, most of which at the small-scale household level.

To help address this issue in South Africa, they used traditional knowledge and scientific methods to document the biodiversity of edible grasshoppers in the country. The findings of their study were published recently in the international journal Biodiversity and Conservation.

The researchers worked closely with community members who collected specimens in the traditional fashion by disturbing the underbrush with leafy branches to agitate the grasshoppers, forcing them into the air. A total of 36 genetic species were identified in a total of 35 ethnospecies named in Sepedi, Tsonga, Lobedu and Venda.

Fried Grasshoppers

“Considering that traditional knowledge has suffered from increasing urbanisation and adoption of modern lifestyles, the expertise of the community members in identifying grasshoppers was impressive, and many of the ethnospecies matched with the genetic data.”

Not only did the community help with the collection of grasshoppers, but they also offered the researchers some of their favourite meals.

After the specimens had been collected, the researchers extracted DNA from the grasshoppers’ leg muscles and generated DNA barcodes for different ethnospecies. The researchers say they are confident that the classification of the specimens according to genetic groups is accurate.

“We found that the overall diversity of edible grasshoppers traditionally consumed in South Africa is higher than previously reported.

Fried and cooked grasshopperswith pap

“Our DNA-based analyses showed the utilisation of 36 genetic species that likely represent distinct species. Our study is the first to show that people in Limpopo eat about seven additional grasshopper species that have not been documented previously.

“The fact that 10 out of 35 (29%) of the ethnospecies found in our study have been recorded more than 20 years ago reiterates the importance of present-day cultural resources and local knowledge for documenting biodiversity.”

According to the researchers, this is the first study on edible insects that associates DNA-based data with a specific set of specimens available for future reference, along their vernacular names. They add that this represents important groundwork for accurate documentation of edible grasshoppers in South Africa.

“Our study represents a step forward in documenting edible grasshoppers used by South Africans. The use of different sources of infor­mation contributes to unravel the fantastic abundance of edible insect cultural and biological diversity in Africa and worldwide.

“Genetic infor­mation, such as DNA barcodes, may assist in closing the species identification gap using sequences of specimens expertly identified as reference for querying unknown sequences. Studies that use DNA barcoding for documenting the diversity of wild edible insects are still rare and represent only a small part of the wide range of taxonomic groups consumed worldwide.”

They add that their work may inform future studies for documenting edible insects in Africa and other parts of the world.

Source: Michaela O’Hare, Sylvain Hugel, Megan Hendrickse, Christi Greyling, Bronwyn Egan & Barbara van Asch (2023). Documenting the biodiversity of edible grasshoppers in South Africa with traditional knowledge, classic taxonomy and genetic information. Biodiversity and Conservation (2023) 32:3481–3502: doi: org/10.1007/s10531-023-02676-x

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