Which witchetty grubs to grab: choose your insect dinner wisely

A new classification of witchetty grubs in Australia will help maintain traditional knowledge about edible insects, help tourists avoid eating poisonous species, and may help food security.

Mr Conrad Bilney, a PhD candidate in the Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution at La Trobe University’s Albury-Wodonga campus, said although eating insects is widespread internationally, it isn’t common in Australia beyond Indigenous communities.

‘Two billion people from more than 100 countries consume over 2,000 types of insects, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Office,’ said Mr Bilney. ‘But it’s very new and just a boutique thing in Australia for non-Indigenous people.’

He acknowledges that people baulk at eating insect larvae, but other uses for edible insects include additives in products such as baking ingredients, fishing bait, feed for livestock, and as a source of high-protein fish food.

‘The first step is cataloguing the types of insects being used by Aboriginal communities,’ said Mr Bilney. ‘We found seven new insect larvae species, recorded 301 specimens, and recorded 27 host trees used by the larvae. This research focussed on finding as many edible insect species as we could under the guidance and advice of Aboriginal Traditional Owners. We then used DNA barcoding to taxonomically identify each specimen. Two distinct knowledge bases – Aboriginal knowledge combined with western science – worked together equally to produce these outstanding results. One couldn’t be done without the other.’

The work has resulted in Australia’s first repository of witchetty grub larvae, allowing adult moth and beetle specimens to be genetically matched to the larvae for the first time.

‘Our research was also driven by Traditional Owners wishing to record and conserve their knowledge. We worked with them to produce two booklets in Aboriginal and English languages at Kiwirrkurra IPA in Western Australia, and Barrow Creek in the Northern Territory.’

The results will inform national collections and museums about new species. The work will also benefit the tourism, agricultural and fishing industries as well as the burgeoning restaurant trade. ‘The future for entomophagy – or humans eating insects – looks promising, although whether it will be as a delicacy for consumers or as cooking additives remains to be seen. The research may open new opportunities for Aboriginal communities.’

Mr Bilney said we know little about edible insects. ‘The danger is that tourists could dig up ones they think are safe, but they’re not. You can’t eat all larvae from any tree. Also, expansion of tourism digging up things in the community can cause environmental and cultural damage, which nobody wants.’

Mr Bilney will present his results today in Brisbane at the annual conference of the Ecological Society of Australia.

For further information, including high-res images: Simon Torok, Scientell, 0409 844 302, simon@scientell.com.au
La Trobe University media office: Claire Bowers, 0437 279 903, c.bowers@latrobe.edu.au