The Sunday News
Edible Insects Series 7
Hwiza (Sho), Ibhombo (Ndebele)
I HAD a chat with a dear friend on healthy foods and popular foods and I happened to mention locusts as food. We explored the attitudes that are common when it comes to food preferences. Think of a menu offering chicken stir fry and locust stir fry? While for the same portion of both dishes, the latter would have a higher nutritional value, in terms of preference, the average person is likely to go for the chicken stir-fry that they are used to. I hope to deal with that in this article by giving out information on one species of edible locusts, Ornithacris cynea, the bird locust, hwiza, ibhombo. One thing I must quickly mention about vernacular names is that among similar species, these names seem to be used interchangeably, but in some dialects and cultures the vernacular names for some insects are species specific especially in the Masvingo, Bikita area. The genus name Ornithacris suggests a relationship with birds, this is probably because due to the size of the insects, when they fly they resemble small birds.
Description, ecology, biology
Bird locusts, just like all other insects have three distinct body segments (head, thorax and abdomen), six legs and no pairs of wings on both sexes. In the genus Ornithacris there are five closely related and morphologically similar species bird locust Ornithacris cyanea is one of them. It is the largest and strongest flying grasshopper. At this stage let me mention that grasshoppers and locusts are very similar in appearance, the difference is in behaviour, and grasshoppers tend to just be solitary while locusts can be gregarious forming swarms when their population density is high and these are some of the most devastating pests when in this form.
This particular species of bird locust, Ornithacris cyanea, has conspicuous violet-fuscia coloured hind wings. Habitat preferences for this species include woodlands and wooded grassland. Ornithacris cyanea has a univoltine life cycle ie only breeds one generation per year. They mate and lay eggs just before the onset of the wet season. The eggs hatch after about a month around October/November. Nymphs that are hatched will moult about five or six times before they become adults and that takes about two months and around this time there is plenty for them to eat. The adults then scatter and try and survive over winter but they will be immature adults, in reproductive diapauses (ie they delay in developing their reproductive systems until the next summer wet season when they become reproductively active again).
The bird locust does cause damage to crops, examples being coffee, cotton, corn, millet and other crops.
Ornithacris cyanea is in the order Orthoptera made up of some of the insects that are generally considered to be primitive. In this group are some well-known migratory locusts that have so often devastated man’s crops. This group has the primitive biting mouthparts which though primitive are very efficient for eating solid foods. The insects in this order are hemimetabolous i.e. they undergo incomplete metamorphosis, from the egg, to a nymph which resembles the adult and straight or directly into the adult from there.
Normally the nymph will have very short wings or fleshy pads that do not attain full size or become functional until it transforms into an adult.
Most insects in this order are winged but some are totally wingless.
What grasshoppers feed on
Grasshoppers at the nymph stage are not choosy about their diets and are considered to be opportunistic feeders, favouring tender plants, clover, fresh shoots, little grass, and other small plants that are fresh and easy to feed on. As they grow older, they undergo molting (a process in which the old skin is replaced by the new and a stronger one). Commonly grasshoppers are not fully classified as herbivores; however they mostly feed on plants, shrubs, and trees. They also eat wheat, crops, oats, barley, and sometimes dead animals. They can also eat vegetables such as broccoli, lettuce, beans, onions, tomatoes and carrot. When they have completely and successfully molted, these insects can leap on and chew almost anything. Some grasshoppers’ favourite diets include corn, wheat, alfalfa and barley. They eat the leaves, flowers and stems. They will also consume moss and lichen off a tree’s bark. Grasshoppers are capable to eat even the driest plants and they have the chemicals necessary to digest them in their saliva.
As a food, they make a nice relish and are quite rich in fats proteins and other nutrients. These are normally caught by hand or using sweep nets. After degutting the abdomen contents, the insects can be washed, boiled briefly in salt water and either dried or fried in cooking oil. I’m sure these are eaten in so many different areas and across many different cultures in Zimbabwe. If these are eaten or not eaten in your area where you come from please get in touch and let us know.
This article is written as part of a survey on use of insects as food in Zimbabwe
For feedback and questions on insects in general and if you’d like to volunteer information on any of these topics: Bird locusts as food, which areas there is still a practice of eating them and other insects as food, harvesting and preparation, recipes and when they appear please do not hesitate to contact: The Museum Entomologist at the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe on: sms or WhatsApp on +263772933071 or post on our Face book page: