(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 8, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Polistes hebraeus is a member of the large hymenopterous order, insects characterized by two pairs of thin translucent wings. It does belong to the pterygots sub -class and the neopter group, being a close relative of bees and ants. Wasps species number several thousands world wide, some are solitary, other congregate and are called social wasps, Polistes hebraeus is one of those which basically means that they build nests. It is found mostly in savannas of the West coast on Reunion island but will also happily set in ravines, forest hedges and houses. They may build the nest in an empty dead log, under some rock or even just underneath a palm or banana leaf.
They go through an annual cycle which we can start artificially with the winter move as it is now the beginning of Austral winter and wasps can be seen flying around trunks and walls looking for a suitable spot to spend winter. The ones we see at this time of the year are all females which have been fertilized by males not long ago, the males shortly dying afterwards as it often is the case amongst this kind of insects.
Those females will find a hole, crevice or crack and stay there for a few months corresponding to the dry and cooler season. When the weather will warm up again and the first rains will start, sometimes in November or December, it will also be the time when butterflies become more active and lay many eggs which will soon turn into nice chubby juicy caterpillars, the favourite food of wasps and their larva as those insects are carnivorous and with a rather strong appetite. So the female, which is a potent queen, will find a protected place such a one listed above and start working. She will first make a very strong peduncle with paper processed by chewing wood that she will cover with resin harvested on trees. This peduncle has a shiny black aspect and must secure the future nest against odds comprising cyclones. Then she will built the nest itself, still using home-made paper by mixing wood and saliva and using the same hexagonal patterns bees use in hives. Nest vary in size, some will be as little as a child's hand and some can reach 20cm in diameter.
Once the first rooms are built the queen will start laying eggs which have to be attached on the side of the room as the nest lays down and rooms are not closed. The queen now has a very busy life, she lays eggs, raises and grooms the larva, provides them with food. As this is an exhausting thing, the first wasps to be born will all be workers which will then take care of the work while the queen will stay on the nest and concentrate on producing eggs. A few days after the eggs have been laid they turn into a very voracious larva which will be fed with caterpillar meat, water and nectar. Three weeks later they will be fully grown, completely filling the alveoli where they were born. They will then build an operculum to close the alveoli and spend about a week transforming into adults with wings. At the end of summer the queen will die, allowing the larva to become sexed adults. While the queen is still alive and feeding the larva she produces some hormones which effect is to sterilize the larva hence giving birth only to workers. The sexed females will soon be fertilized by the males and it will then be time to look for a winter shelter and start it all again.
So now that we have set the actors and the decorum the actors here comes another one, the Hunter. Men have been hunting and gathering food in the wild for eons, people who first settled on Reunion in the 18th and 19th century soon learnt that they could get some extra proteins without having to slash a pig or raise a beef and found out that wasp larva are nutritious, tasty and not that hard to get. Let's hit the path! What you need is a good eyesight, reliable legs to walk and possibly climb and a box of matches. Matches will be used to light a ‘mât de choka' or is other terms the dried infructescence mast from Furcraea foetida, a member of the Agavaceae introduced on Reunion for fibres and which has turned in a very aggressive weed. This close relative of the aloe produces a huge pole with bulblets (small aerial bulbs) which will eventually dry and make a perfect smoke device as the pith contained inside has the property of burning slowly while producing heavy smoke, a very useful items to smoke wasps away! The beauty of the thing is that although the wasps are somewhat traumatised they do not die and will often build another nest further on. Now let us head back home and turn the cooker on!
The larva will be extracted from the alveoli either using a sharp piece of wood, a lemon tree spine or for more modern ages hunters like us a pair of tweezers. This is basic cooking here, no need to be an accomplished chief but you still have to follow the protocol; larva are to be first cooked in a very small amount of water with salt and pepper added. If you throw them directly in hot oil they will mostly burst open which means that your pan will be almost empty and you will have to clean the whole kitchen from floor to ceiling. Once the larva turn white they will be taken out of the water, dried and then only fried in oil with garlic, as they are rather small (poor!) things the process will be fast, you certainly do not want to let them burn after all it took to get them here! Now you can sit and enjoy your delicacy with white rice and a sip of the local beer known by people as ‘Dodo' because there is a drawing of the famous bird printed on the bottle.
It may seem rather gross to many people but insects eating is not a weird thing confined to primitive tribes of Reunion...As a matter of fact it is an important part of the diet in many countries of Africa, Australia, Latin America and Asia. People in those places would happily eat grasshoppers, ants, termites, caterpillars, larva of various origins, spiders, scorpios and so on. Studies have shown that no less than 1417 different species of insects are commonly eaten world wide. In parts of Africa people stop buying beef meat when the season comes for a certain caterpillar to be picked and hundreds of tons are harvested and sold on marketplaces. In Mexico ants eggs are another costly delicacy known as ‘escamoles'. And in the same country the real mescal always comes with the guzano in the bottle, guzano which is nothing else but the larva of a butterfly. No way to travel across Australia without stumbling at a time or another on the balga grubs, those fat ones which develop in the trunk of the grass trees Xanthorrhoea preissii. We could go on and on with examples and add that the nutritious values of insects are quite high and they do not contain all the chemicals found in commercial meat such as drugs, synthetic vitamins, weed-killers and insecticides.So if you want to stay healthy, reduce pollution and save your garden, go out and eat them bugs!