SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

Keywords:

  • bardi grubs;
  • edible insects;
  • entomophagy;
  • reference voucher collection;
  • witjuti grubs

Summary

  1. Top of page
  2. Summary
  3. Introduction
  4. Conclusions
  5. Acknowledgements
  6. References

Some edible insects are well known in Australia because of their use by Indigenous people. Because of their cultural and economic importance, it follows that their conservation could form part of contemporary natural resource management (NRM) effort. Yet, when considered alongside other better known plant and animal resources, there is relatively little documented knowledge of these species, contemporary pressures and conservation management requirements. A major constraint to understanding the potential role of edible insects in land management is the correct identification of species according to both non-Indigenous and Indigenous classification systems. I suggest that an important first step would be to catalogue the edible species with knowledgeable Indigenous people and to establish a national reference voucher collection to understand and document their importance for Indigenous and broader NRM.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Summary
  3. Introduction
  4. Conclusions
  5. Acknowledgements
  6. References

Insects formed a significant part of the traditional diet of Indigenous people in many parts of Africa, America, Asia and Australasia, and they are still relied on in some areas (Paoletti 2005). One misconception is that they are only eaten in times of famine, but in many cases, they are a preferred food, to the extent that, where commercialised, their cost sometimes exceeds that of some meats.

Sustainability of preferred food items is of critical importance to all people, including Indigenous Australians. Since the introduction of Western diets, many Indigenous Australians have substituted customary foods with Western foods (Kouris-Blazos & Wahlqvist 2000). However, bush foods are still held in high regard by many Indigenous Australians, many of whom still harvest them and see them as an integral part of their culture (Yen 2005). A prime example is the interest still present among Indigenous Australians in central Australia to find honey ants (Fig. 1). Additionally, because of the emerging development of bush food enterprises through tourism and the supply of edible insects for restaurants, it is timely to discuss the importance of bush food harvest sustainability and conservation (Alyawarr speakers from Ampilatwatja et al. 2009).

image

Figure 1.  Honey ants, Camponotus inflatus, tjala (Pitjantjatjara) or yerrampe (Arrernte).

Download figure to PowerPoint

Despite their importance, there are many unknowns about edible insects that make it difficult to consider them in contemporary management of country. Non-Indigenous information gaps exist in the list of species collected by Indigenous people. These include their distribution, biology and population dynamics; the effects of seasonal factors on their activity and abundance; and whether Indigenous people actively managed country to increase abundance. Indigenous knowledge about how insects were and are traditionally collected and prepared for eating, as well as their importance in directing land management practices and land use, is of interest to both non-Indigenous researchers and Indigenous people who are keen to record customary use and knowledge of species. With the renewed interest in Indigenous caring for country, it is appropriate to consider the importance of edible insects to Indigenous people and the implications for natural resource management (NRM) practices, particularly considering the potential for increased future demand through tourism and commercialisation of edible insects.

The problem of edible insect identity

The first question about edible insects is always about their identity. While there is some documented information on which edible insects are used by Australian Aboriginal people (Bodenheimer 1951; Reim 1962; Tindale 1966; Flood 1980; Clarke 2003, 2007), there are still large knowledge gaps. There is also some misinformation because of incorrect use of common names, which in some cases has been perpetuated in subsequent citations because of the lack of reference specimens being collected at the time of observation (Yen 2005).

Given that edible insects may be important for Indigenous NRM, then a fundamental first step is for both non-Indigenous and Indigenous collaborators to agree on the identity of the insects. Preparing a list of edible insect species used by Indigenous people at specific locations requires recording of both scientific binomial names and Aboriginal names to show respect to both knowledge systems, to increase accuracy of identification for both cultures and to assist in the recording of Indigenous knowledge and language, of which much is currently threatened (McConvell & Thieberger 2001). However, entomologists are hindered by the fact that many Australian insect species have not been described, so they lack a species name. To complicate matters further, insect taxonomy is based primarily on adult stages of the insects. In the case of beetles and moths, it is generally the larval stage that is consumed, and we often lack information linking the different larval stages with the appropriate adults. Documentation of Aboriginal names is also difficult as there are many Aboriginal languages having different names for the same species and different ways that non-Aboriginal people have spelled and recorded these names.

Terms such as bardi and witjuti grubs (each of which has several different spellings) are applied to all sorts of larvae found in tree trunks, plant roots or soil. These terms have specific application in their Indigenous language group, for example, witjuti is the larva of a cossid moth found (Fig. 2) in the roots of Acacia kempeana (or the witjuti bush). Currently, Western science recognises one species of witjuti grub (Endoxyla leucomochla), while among the Pitjantjatjara and Arrernte groups, the edible grubs are given a binomial name based on ‘edible grub’ followed by the name of the plant in which it is found – the witjuti grub is maku witjuti in Pitjantjatjara and tyape atnyematye in Arrernte (Yen et al. 1997). Indigenous people in central Australia recognise at least 24 different types of edible caterpillars from plants (Latz 1995), and it is likely that most of these will be distinct scientific species.

image

Figure 2.  A witjuti grub, known as maku witjuti (Pitjantjatjara), tyape atnyematye (Arrernte), and likely to be the species Endoxyla leucomochla.

Download figure to PowerPoint

Agreed insect identities by Indigenous and non-Indigenous collaborators will result in more reliable information about where these species are to be found, observations on their biology and behaviour, their role in ecosystems, their seasonality, how they were used, whether the land was managed to increase numbers and, if appropriate, information about the totemic relationships, ceremonies and creation stories associated with them (Horstman & Wightman 2001). Seasonality of resource availability is of increasing interest and use in NRM (see Woodward et al. 2012). Considering that many traditional owners have spent lengthy time on country and are often holders of extensive knowledge of various species, they are likely to be more acutely aware of when and where edible insects are found and how they respond to environmental factors (Horstman & Wightman 2001). Questions relating to cultural use and perceptions can be difficult for entomologists who are forced to enter other Western disciplines of anthropology, sociology and the area of sacred knowledge. It would be advantageous at this stage to collaborate with experts from such fields, as well as linguists, to ensure accurate appropriation of knowledge and correct interpretations.

The main source of edible insects is still wild harvest, and some edible insects are being collected as recreational fishing bait or as part of the bush tucker experience by non-Indigenous people (Yen 2009). Yet, there is virtually no information available to assess whether the numbers and/or range of any of these edible insects has been reduced in recent times because of (i) overharvesting, (ii) changes in country management (e.g. changes in fire regimes) or (iii) other changes to country such as invasive species or climate change.

Conclusions

  1. Top of page
  2. Summary
  3. Introduction
  4. Conclusions
  5. Acknowledgements
  6. References

Decision-making in NRM is very much based around vascular plants and vertebrates; even when the ecological importance of invertebrates is acknowledged, they do not usually figure prominently in NRM plans. There is very limited documented information about the use of insects as food by Indigenous Australians (but see Bodenheimer 1951; Reim 1962; Clarke 2003, 2007). Furthermore, certainty about the identification of these species is problematic as it was often conducted in the field without lodgement of reference specimens. This issue, coupled with use of various Aboriginal names and languages (including past and current misspellings) and changes in taxonomic nomenclature, means that it is often uncertain what species of insects were recorded and eaten. If we are to learn more about how important edible insects were and/or are in Aboriginal cultures and how they can be used to manage country, then a fundamental first step would be to establish a national reference collection of edible insects including Indigenous and non-Indigenous names, authorities and locations and to provide support for taxonomic research to describe new species. This database could include nationwide information for use by Indigenous people themselves and non-Indigenous researchers. Protocols of Intellectual Property and Indigenous Ecological Knowledge must also be considered here. The Atlas of Living Australia could be a useful database to store such information.

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Summary
  3. Introduction
  4. Conclusions
  5. Acknowledgements
  6. References

The author wishes to thank John Wainer and to the reviewers for useful comments on the original manuscript, and to members of the Mititjulu Community for introducing me to maku and tjala.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Summary
  3. Introduction
  4. Conclusions
  5. Acknowledgements
  6. References
  • Alyawarr speakers from Ampilatwatja, Walsh F. and Douglas J. (2009) Angka Akatyerr-akert: A Desert raisin report. Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre, Alice Springs.
  • Bodenheimer F. S. (1951) Insects As Human Food. Dr. W. Junk, The Hague.
  • Clarke P. (2003) Where the Ancestors Walked. Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW.
  • Clarke P. A. (2007) Aboriginal People and Their Plants. Rosenberg Publishing Pty Ltd, Dural NSW.
  • Flood J. (1980) The Moth Hunters. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra.
  • Horstman M. and Wightman G. (2001) Karparti ecology: recognition of Aboriginal ecological knowledge and its application to management in north-western Australia. Ecological Management & Restoration 2, 99109.
  • Kouris-Blazos A. and Wahlqvist M. (2000) Indigenous Australian food culture on cattle stations prior to the 1960s and food intake of older Aborigines in a community studied in 1988. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition 9, 224231.
  • Latz P. (1995) Bushfires & Bushtucker. IAD Press, Alice Springs.
  • McConvell P. and Thieberger N. (2001) State of Indigenous languages in Australia – 2001 Australia State of the Environment Second Technical Paper Series (Natural and Cultural Heritage), Department of the Environment and Heritage, Canberra.
  • Paoletti M. G. (ed) (2005) Ecological implications of minilivestock. Science Publishers, Enfield.
  • Reim H. (1962) Die Insektennahrung der australischen Unreinwohner. Akademie Verlag, Berlin.
  • Tindale N. B. (1966) Insects as food for the Australian Aborigines. Australian Natural History 15, 179183.
  • Woodward E., Jackson S., Finn M. and Mc Taggart P. M. (2012) Utilising Indigenous seasonal knowledge to understand aquatic resource use and inform water resource management in northern Australia. Ecological Management & Restoration 13, 5864.
  • Yen A. L. (2005) Insect and other invertebrate foods of Australian Aborigines. In: Ecological implications of Minilivestock (ed M. G. Paoletti), pp. 367387, Science Publishers Inc, Enfield, New Hampshire.
  • Yen A. L. (2009) Entomophagy and insect conservation: some thoughts for digestion. Journal for Insect Conservation 13, 667670.
  • Yen A. L., Gillen J., Gillespie R., Vanderwal R. and The Mutitjulu Community. (1997) A preliminary assessment of Anangu knowledge of Central Australian invertebrates. Memoirs of the Museum of Victoria 56, 631634.