Lepidoptera Butterflies Moths

Lepidopterans reach their maximum food importance in Africa where, in many countries, more than 20 species are consumed. In the southern part of Congo (Kinshasa), for example, caterpillars of at least 35 species are consumed.

Family Saturniidae (Giant Silkworms)

In 1980, Malaisse and Parent analyzed 23 species (17 of which were Saturniidae) eaten by humans, using samples that were prepared in a manner identical to that preceding their culinary preparation and then dehydrated. Crude protein content averaged 63.5%, kcal per 100 g dry weight averaged 457, and most species proved to be an excellent source of iron, 100 g averaging (in 21 species analyzed for iron) 335% of the daily requirement. In Angola, the saturniid caterpillar Usta terpsichore was found to be a rich source of zinc, iron, thiamine, and riboflavin.

Probably the best known of the edible caterpillars is Gonimbrasia belina, the so-called "mopanie worm," which is widely eaten in southern Africa. The South African Bureau of Standards has estimated annual sales of mopanie through agricultural cooperative markets at about 40,000 bags, each containing 40 kg of traditionally prepared, dried caterpillars. This total represents only those entering reported channels of commerce and does not include those privately collected and consumed or sold. The caterpillars, up to 10 cm in length, grip the host plant tightly and cannot be shaken off; they must be picked by hand. A good picker in an average infestation can collect 18 kg per hour. In areas where they are abundant and bulk-dried, they are first eviscerated and then roasted for 15 min before being spread out to dry. About 2 days are required for the product to become dry enough for storage.

The mopanie caterpillar is an important food item and is actively traded not only in South Africa but also in Botswana and Zimbabwe and is exported by the ton to Zambia. From extensive studies in South Africa, Dreyer and Wehmeyer concluded in 1982 that "the consumption of mopanie caterpillars can to a substantial degree supplement the predominantly cereal diet with many of the protective nutrients." The amino acid composition of the dried caterpillars is relatively complete, with high proportions of lysine and tryptophan (which are limiting in maize protein) and of methionine (limiting in legume seed proteins). There is increasing concern in South Africa that the mopanie caterpillar might be collected to the point of extinction.

In Malawi, G. belina and another saturniid, Gynanisa maia, still occur abundantly in Kasungu National Park; the larvae are in season from mid-October to December, a time of year when food stocks of families living near the Park are running low. The caterpillars are nonexistent outside the Park because of the absence of host trees, which have been displaced by extensive agriculture. A study has shown that opening Kasungu National Park to controlled sustainable use, such as caterpillar harvest, by local people can reduce the problems of poaching in parks and other protected areas. Similarly, of ecological benefit, observations in Zambia have shown that there are very few late bushfires in areas where the caterpillars of Gy. maia are found. Fires late in the dry season cause considerable damage by killing trees, reducing regrowth, and increasing erosion. The caterpillars are a highly prized food, and in areas where they are abundant they provide the incentive for people to burn early, thereby protecting the caterpillars and enhancing woodland regeneration. There are other examples in Africa where protection of caterpillars as a food resource enhances biodiversity.

Family Bombycidae (Silkworm Moths)

A by-product of the silk industry, pupae of Bombyx mori remain after the silk is reeled from the cocoons. These pupae are widely sold, often canned, in markets in Eastern Asia. In China, the pupae, along with waste materials from the reeling factories and from the silkworm rearing, are also used as fish food in pond-fish culture. Canned pupae are exported, especially from Korea, and can be found in Asian food shops in the United States.

Family Cossidae (Carpenterworms, Leopard Moths)

Many insects were important foods for the Aborigines of Australia and among the most prized were the witchety or witjuti grubs, several species of root-boring cossid larvae belonging to the genus Xyleutes. Tindale conducted in 1953 the definitive study on these insects and stated, "Aborigines with access to witjuti grubs usually are healthy and properly nourished. ... Women and children spend much time digging for them and a healthy baby seems often to have one dangling from its mouth in much the same way that one of our children would be satisfied with a baby comforter." Over a period of several months spent observing nomadic Pitjandjaras in the Mann and Musgrave Ranges, it was noted that part of nearly every day's diet consisted of these larvae. Tindale states elsewhere that the taste of witchety grub, "when lightly cooked in hot ashes, would delight a gourmet."

Recently in Australia there has been an explosion of interest in native, or "bush tucker," foods, including witchety grubs and other insects such as bardi grubs (Cerambycidae) and honey ants. Bush food is increasingly found in restaurants frequented by tourists, and book stores are well-stocked with books on bush tucker. Witchety grubs are on the menu of the posh restaurant Rountrees on Sydney's North Shore; the chef says of them, "They have a nice, nutty flavor when roasted."

Family Megathymidae (Giant Skippers)

The larva of the giant skipper butterfly, Aegiale hesperiaris, known as gusano blanco de maguey, or the white agave or maguey worm, is in demand by people of all social classes in Mexico. Whereas campesinos with access to maguey plants can collect their own larvae to eat or to sell, restaurants in the larger towns and cities charge as much as U.S. $25 per plate. The gusanos are served fried or roasted in butter, chili, or garlic sauce. They are also exported as gourmet food. Two other edible insects are associated with the maguey. The pink worm of the maguey, Xyleutes redtenbachi (family Cossidae), also called the red agave worm or gusano rojo de maguey, is the larva used in bottles of tequila. They are sold in the markets and are also used to season sauces or they may be roasted or fried with salt and eaten in tacos. Along the maguey's roots are often colonies of ants, which serve as a source of the prized escamoles, or so-called "ant eggs," which actually are ant pupae.

Family Pyralidae (Wax Moths, Grass Moths)

Taylor and Carter wrote in 1976 as follows: "Larvae of the greater wax moth (Galleria mellonella) are tasty and, fortunately, easily reared, hardy and odorless. If only they were commercially available, we would probably have centered most of our recipes around them. They are our favorite insect. They are thin-skinned, tender, and succulent. They would appear to lend themselves to commercial exploitation as snack items." The authors note that the larvae, when dropped into hot vegetable oil, immediately swell, elongate and burst, looking then not like an insect, but like popcorn, and having the flavor of potato chips, corn puffs, or the like. These larvae, known as wax moths, are now available from various dealers in North America.

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