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South African Journal of Science

versión On-line ISSN 1996-7489
versión impresa ISSN 0038-2353

S. Afr. j. sci. vol.114 no.1-2 Pretoria ene./feb. 2018 



Human uses and indigenous knowledge of edible termites in Vhembe District, Limpopo Province, South Africa



Shandukani R. NetshifhefheI, II; Ednah C. KunjekuIII; Frances D. DuncanI

ISchool of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand Johannesburg, South Africa
IIGauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Johannesburg, South Africa
IIIDepartment of Plant Production, University of Venda Thohoyandou, South Africa





Termites are a good food source, being rich in proteins, fats, vitamins and many essential mineral nutrients, and thus provide food security for poor households. We report on a survey conducted in the Vhembe District Municipality of Limpopo Province, South Africa, to identify edible termite species and find out how they are harvested, prepared, graded, packaged and marketed. We also looked at the socio-economic factors of the harvesters, marketers and consumers. Using a structured questionnaire, 104 individuals were interviewed from 48 villages. Most of the harvesters were over the age of 60 years but termites are consumed by the whole family. The results of the survey revealed that only three termite species are consumed: soldiers of Macrotermes falciger (89.90%), M. natalensis (8.08%) and M. michaelseni (2.02%). The preferred method of preparation was frying (77.55% of the respondents). At least 80.77% of the respondents indicated that some religions have restrictions on termite consumption but no ethnic restrictions were reported. The income derived from selling termites was estimated to range from ZAR2040 to ZAR17 680 per annum between April 2015 and April 2016. The results of this study showed that edible termites contribute significantly to the livelihoods of many rural families and this indigenous knowledge should be passed on to younger generations. Research on the sustainability of termite harvesting is recommended.
Termites are sources of food with high economic and social importance, and are easily accessible by the poor.
Studies have been conducted on edible termites in many African countries, yet comparatively little is known about edible termites in South Africa.
Preservation of indigenous knowledge used during harvesting and processing needs to be prioritised.

Keywords: insects; entomophagy; harvesters; marketers; Macrotermes spp.




The consumption of insects by humans is commonly known as entomophagy.1 Early hominids have been reported to have eaten insects, with termite soldiers and alates of the genus Macrotermes being part of their diet.2,3

Termites are rich in proteins, vitamins and mineral nutrients.4 The crude protein content of termites ranges from 20.4% in Macrotermes bellicosus (Smeathman) to 35.88% in Macrotermes nigeriensis (Sjostedt).4,5Macrotermes bellicosus alates have been found to be rich in vitamins, with contents of 2.89 pg/100 g for vitamin A; 1.98 mg/100 g for vitamin B2 and 3.41 mg/100 g for vitamin C.4 Mbah and Elekima5 found alates to be high in minerals, namely calcium 21 mg/100 g; phosphorus 1.36 mg/100 g; iron 27 mg/100 g and magnesium 0.15 mg/100 g. In addition to these nutrients, a study conducted by Banjo et al.4 found that M. bellicosus has a carbohydrate content of 43.3%, while Mbah and Elekima5 found that the oil content of the same termite species is 28.37%. The studies conducted by Phelps et al.6 in Zimbabwe found that Macrotermes falciger (Gerstacker) are very high in energy with 761 kcal/100 g. Termites can therefore provide food security in many poor African countries as they contain essential nutrients, which are often lacking in the diets of people in those countries.7

Macrotermes nigeriensis alates have been reported by Igwe et al.8 and Ajayi and Adedire9 to be consumed as a delicacy in certain parts of Nigeria. People living in Nkoya in the northeastern part of the Western Province of Zambia use termites as an important part of their diets.10 Chavunduka11 reported the consumption of termite soldiers of Macrotermes species in Zimbabwe. About 14 species of the family Macrotermitidae have been reported to be consumed in sub-Saharan Africa alone, including in some parts of South Africa.12 The majority of these termite species belong to the genus Macrotermes. Of the 12 recognised species of Macrotermes that occur in the sub-Saharan Africa region, 9 are commonly eaten and have been recorded from southern Africa.13,14 These species are all naturally open-woodland or savanna dwellers and all termite castes - queen, soldiers, alates and workers - are eaten.15,16 In South Africa, Bodenheimer17 documented the alates of Macrotermes swaziae (Full) and Microhodotermes viator (Latreille) as edible termite species, while Quin18 also reported Odontotermes badius (Haviland) and O. capensis (DeGeer) to be edible.

Harvesting of soldier termites in Uganda was reported to have been done by using wet grass blades or parts of tree pods or bark, by inserting them into the holes of termite mounds that had been opened with a knife.19 Alates emerge from holes at the mound after the first rains and are caught using light traps suspended over water buckets and basins to collect them as they drop. Bergier20 indicated that baskets placed upside down over the holes were used in Democratic Republic of Congo to collect the emerging alates.

Termites are killed by drowning, boiling or roasting for a few minutes and are then sun-dried.10 A study conducted by Niaba et al.21 in Cote d'lvoire found that termites prepared for human consumption were either dried or fresh and prepared through grilling, baking, frying, seasoning or roasting. Botswanan women of San origin prepared the alates of Hodotermes mossambicus (Hagen) by roasting.22

Comparatively little is known about the use of termites as food in South Africa. The current study was consequently undertaken to document the edible termite species found in the Vhembe District Municipality of South Africa. The study also looked at consumption, harvesting and biomass harvested; processing and marketing of edible termites as an income-generating activity; and, lastly, assessed the contribution of termites to food security.


Material and methods

Study area

The study was carried out over a period of 12 months (April 2015 to April 2016) in major termite consumption areas in 48 villages in the three local municipalities of the Vhembe District in the Limpopo Province: Thulamela, Makhado and Mutale. These areas were selected because termites are an important food supplement for people living in the district (personal observation).

The Vhembe District Municipality is one of the five districts of the Limpopo Province in South Africa. The district is located at 22o56'S and 30o28'E in the far north and shares borders with Zimbabwe in the north, Mozambique in the east and Botswana in the northwest.23 According to Mpandeli24, the average annual precipitation in the Vhembe District is 820 mm, with the rainfall season starting in October and peaking in January-February. Winter starts in May and ends in August. The district has been reported to have extreme temperatures, with maximum temperatures of more than 35 °C during summer months in most parts of the district.25

Agriculture is the largest contributor to the district's economy, with small numbers of commercial farmers and predominantly medium- to smallholder farmers cultivating field, tropical and subtropical crops and livestock.26 Figure 1 depicts the location of the Vhembe District with termite-harvesting mounds and markets where the studies were conducted. A significant portion of the land is arable. The district falls under communal tenure systems, where most of the land legally belongs to the state and is administered by traditional authorities.27 Most of the villages within the district are rural with a high unemployment rate and the majority of residents, mainly women, are living in poverty and/or depend on government social grants.28


Data collection methods

Questionnaires and interviews

Three sets of structured questionnaires were developed to source the information from the selected harvesters, marketers and consumers. Marketers and consumers were randomly selected. The marketers were interviewed at the markets. The consumers - the buyers of termites -were interviewed at their homes and workplaces. The consumers were randomly selected by approaching people door-to-door at homes and workplaces and by approaching those seen purchasing termites at the markets. Consumers are a separate group and are people who eat termites. Marketers and harvesters also consume termites but were not interviewed as part of the consumer group in Table 1.

A chain referral sampling technique as explained by Biernacki and Waldorf29 was applied to locate the harvesters through the assistance of the termite marketers at the vendor markets around the study areas. The harvesters were randomly selected from the list provided by the marketers, community members and referrals from other harvesters. Harvesters were interviewed at harvest sites and at their homes. The questionnaire took between 1 h and 1.5 h to complete, depending on how quickly the respondents answered the questions. All the interviews were conducted individually in local languages, i.e. Tshivenda and Xitsonga, with assistance from a Xitsonga fieldworker who is competent in the language.

The consumers', marketers' and harvesters' questionnaires covered the socio-economic characteristics of the respondents, including culture and religion, importance of termites as food, ethnic preferences and prohibitions, uses of termites, frequency and means of termite consumption, species preference, knowledge of termite taxonomy, knowledge of termite abundance and distribution, and knowledge of the role of termites in human nutrition and health. In addition to the above aspects, the marketers' questionnaire also covered marketing, selling prices, marketer's estimated income, what consumers look for before buying, quantity of termites transported per batch, the type and volume of the packaging unit, grading and quality standards (including size, aroma and colour), variability of prices between seasons and volumes sold. Harvesters' questionnaires also covered seasonal availability, distance travelled to harvesting sites, how they know a particular species is edible, how termites are harvested or captured, preparation, preservation, which species are easy or difficult to harvest, how often harvesting occurs, and the quantity of termites harvested or captured in a single harvest.

The study was approved by the Human Research Ethics Committee of the University of the Witwatersrand (protocol number H15/0314).

Edible termite surveys

A total of 62 mounds were randomly selected and sampled with assistance of harvesters in the area. Harvesters were asked to identify mounds in the area from which they were harvesting. The positions of edible termite mounds were recorded using a Garmin GPS 60. At least 10 minor and 10 major soldier castes were collected from each mound and preserved in vials containing 80% ethyl alcohol. These samples were identified to species by the Biosystematics Division of the ARC-Plant Protection Research Institute in Pretoria, South Africa.


Statistical procedures and data analysis

Statistical Analysis System (SAS), version 9.3 of 2012 was used for the analysis of the descriptive statistics.30 Data from the questionnaire surveys were analysed separately per municipality for the three local municipalities and also combined (Vhembe District) as the total for the study area. The termite soldiers and alates harvested or captured were determined by recording the number of litres harvested per week, adding this over a period of 12 months. The daily intake of termites was determined by recording the number of cups consumed per household per day and dividing this by the number of household members, and multiplying this by 64.8 grams (a steel cup is equivalent to 64.8 g of termites). The volumes of termites sold annually were determined by recording the number of cups sold per week per month and adding this over a period of 12 months. The rand value of termites was determined using a price of ZAR20 per cup (one steel cup was equivalent to 0.3 L) of termites. Dry weight of termites was determined after sun drying (ready for market). Mapping of the villages and mounds was done using ArcGIS 6.3 software. A chi-square test was used to test for associations between species and local municipalities and between termite types and local municipalities and the proportions of education between harvesters and marketers.31 Analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used to test the differences between harvesters, marketers and consumers for daily intake.32


Results and discussion

Socio-economic characteristics

The results of the socio-economic data of the termite harvester, marketer and consumer respondents are shown in Table 1. The majority of all respondents to the three questionnaires were female and over the age of 50. However, in Mutale, the age of respondents ranged from 25 to 39 years (47.37%), unlike for the other two municipalities. Most (67.6%) harvesters were over 60 years of age and most (64.5%) marketers were over 50 years of age. The interviews were conducted during normal school hours, which may have affected the availability of the younger age group who would have been in attendance at their educational institutes. In light of that, the results demonstrate that individuals within the district across all ages participate in edible termite activities, be it as a consumer, marketer or harvester. The school-attending children participated only in a limited way, mainly during harvesting. About one third (35%) of the respondents had never attended school, while a large proportion of those that had attended school, had secondary education. A 2x2 chi-square test on the proportions of no versus some education between harvesters and marketers (who eat termites) was significant (X2 = 5.25; d.f. = 1; p = 0.022) (Table 1). At least 65.5% of the marketers had some form of formal education compared with 26.4% of the harvesters. Tshivenda and Christianity were the most dominant language and religion, respectively, in the district.

A 2x2 chi-square test on the proportions of marketers' education (no versus some) between municipalities was highly significant (X2 = 10.83; d.f. = 2; p = 0.001) (Table 1). Thus, there was strong association between education status and municipality, as the marketers from Makhado were less educated than those from the Thulamela municipality.


Termite species diversity and preferences

In all municipalities, we found that most of the respondents were able to identify the major edible termite genera, species and the castes using vernacular names. A 3x2 chi-square test on the proportions of knowledge between the three groups was significant (p < 0.05) and the harvester group had 100% knowledge of the termite species, while the consumer group had only 83.3% knowledge and the marketers had 90.3% knowledge. Harvesters and marketers were mainly consistent in providing the vernacular names of termite species as compared to the consumers.

The edible termite species collected from the district belonged to one family of the higher termite species of Termitidae: Macrotermitinae. All of the collected species belonged to the genus Macrotermes Holmgren. The fungus-growing termite genus Macrotermes has been reported by Roonwal32 as the most important and widely distributed genus in Africa. The three consumed species collected in the study areas in order of preference were M. falciger, M. natalensis and M. michaelseni. Consumers' most preferred termite option was the soldiers of M. falciger (89.90%), M. natalensis (8.08%) and M. michaelseni (2.02%). Macrotermes natalensis and M. michaelseni were mainly preferred in Nzhelele (Makhado) and some parts of Mutale where M. falciger either is not available or is rarely available. The collection of soldier termites all year round seems to be widespread. The level of consumption of M. natalensis and M. michaelseni was not large enough for a reliable test and was combined for the chi-square test. A 2x3 chi-square test on the proportions of species consumed per local municipality was not significant (X2 = 4.27; d.f. = 2; p = 0.118). Macrotermes falciger was the most common species collected in Thulamela (51.7%) followed by Makhado (28.1%) then Mutale (20.2%) (Table 2).

Macrotermes falciger has larger soldiers than M. natalensis and M. michaelseni, and was the only species sold at all six surveyed local markets. Harvesters preferred harvesting the major soldiers of M. falciger because of their higher demand and harvesters would be able to fill the harvesting buckets more quickly. It was observed that soldier termites were available all year round even though they are scarce in winter months (May to July). The alates were collected during the beginning of the rainy season in October/November in the Vhembe District. Studies conducted by van Huis12 found that alates are mainly collected during the night and emerge from the holes of the mounds after the first summer rainfall. Meyer33 found that the alates release of M. natalensis in the Kruger National Park occurs mainly during December and February.

Contrary to the findings by Nonaka22 in studies conducted in Botswana, all the harvesters in the Vhembe District collected more soldiers than the winged reproductives (alates) because they are available all year round, are easy to harvest and are more in demand than alates. This finding substantiates those of Chavunduka11 who found that major soldiers and alates of M. falciger are eaten as food in many parts of Zimbabwe. During the surveys conducted in the Vhembe District, it was reported by consumers that alates can cause stomach disorders.

Macrotermes natalensis are smaller than M. falciger and the species was not found in any of the markets surveyed. The M. natalensis major soldiers are about the size of the ignored minor soldiers of M. falciger.

The minor soldiers of M. natalensis in Vhembe are quite small, but both major and minor soldiers are harvested and consumed together. These termites are thought to be not as palatable as the M. falciger species. Macrotermes michaelseni is the least preferred species, was also not available in the market and was detected only twice after direction received from the harvesters. This might be because there were very few mounds of this species in the study area. Although Odontotermes spp. and H. mossambicus occur in Vhembe and are known to be eaten by humans,18,22,34 these species were not sold at any of the markets surveyed.


Termite consumption

The overwhelming majority of the respondents (94.23%) of all ages and genders from three local municipalities consumed termites. The findings by Nyeko and Olubayo35 on the studies conducted in Uganda found that both male and female respondents of all ages consumed soldiers, alates and workers. A majority (97.96%) of the respondents grew up eating termites. Soldiers of mainly M. falciger were the most preferred and regularly consumed in the district followed by alates. A 2x3 chi-square test on the proportions of termite type consumption per local municipality was not significant (X2 = 1.67; d.f. = 2; p = 0.434). In all three municipalities, more soldiers (62.62%) than alates (37.38%) were consumed (Table 2). No workers were consumed. Table 3 shows the state in which edible termites are consumed in the district. It was observed that most of the respondents in the district consumed termites as frequently as possible.

The results of this survey show that the termites were eaten fresh (raw straight out of the mound) or were dried or refrigerated. Termites were prepared in a variety of ways: boiled, fried, grilled, roasted and s