Insects and Human Life

Brian Morris

Berg 2004
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006
Insects and Human Life is a broad-ranging survey of the role of insects in the social and cultural life of the matrilineal peoples of Malawi. Much of the detail is quite specialised, but it is well mixed with, and linked to, more general topics, from economics and agriculture to Western attitudes to insects and comparisons with subsistence farmers and hunter-gatherers elsewhere.

Morris begins with some general observations on folk taxonomy and a summary of insect classifications among four other peoples. He then sets out the insect classification system of the Nyanja people of Malawi.

"A total of 103 insect generics have been recorded from Malawi... the majority of taxa relate to four groups of organisms — grasshoppers and crickets, beetles, caterpillars of moths/butterflies and wasps, bees and ants — which constitute roughly 70 per cent of the total number of generics."

Morris touches on the history of Western prejudice against the eating of insects. He then surveys the full range of insects eaten in Malawi, looking at the mechanics of their collection and preparation and at the extent and significance of their utilisation. Large amounts of money can be made collecting some species, but this is too unpredictable to be more than a complement to agriculture.

"The winged termite is the relish par excellence in Malawi, and, it appears, throughout sub-Saharan Africa. As a food source it is greatly esteemed, and most people — but not all — consider it superior as a relish to chicken or meat."
"Mopane worms are such a sought-after delicacy in southern Africa that they form the basis of a huge cash industry, and, in good seasons, a person harvesting the caterpillars can earn in a few weeks a substantial income — almost equivalent to a year's income as a farm labourer."

Morris describes traditional bee-keeping and then the introduction of modern bee-keeping methods and top-bar hives. Bee-keeping clubs have had mixed success, but honey remains "an important and vital source of food, as well as providing a useful supplement to household income if marketed".

"As the African honey-bee, unlike its Asian counterpart, is a cavity-nesting bee, bee keeping using fixed hives developed in Africa from a very early period."

Turning to agriculture, Morris surveys the major pests of subsistence, cash, and plantation crops. He also covers the use of insecticides.

"In contrast to tea, which seems to have few serious pests, coffee, like cotton, seems to be besieged with insect pests and diseases."

Insects are also common household pests: cockroaches, termites, bed bugs, maize weevils and itch mites feature most prominently. And locust swarms have been a concern from at least as far back as 1893 down to a recent outbreak in 1997.

Of the diseases carried by insects, Morris covers only the two most important. Mosquito-borne malaria is one of the country's biggest health problems, with one study suggesting that it is "far more problematic than AIDS-related diseases in Malawi [and] still accounts for 40 per cent of all hospital admissions". The history of tsetse flies and sleeping sickness has been and continues to be linked to management of wild game:

"At the present time pockets of tsetse fly are still to be found in and adjacent to all the wildlife sanctuaries in Malawi and it has been suggested that the long-term future of the national parks and game reserves depends on the long-term control of the tsetse fly."

In the final chapter, Morris dissects some extremes of Western attitudes towards insects, ranging from those who consider them "the enemy" to New Age sanctification of both insects and traditional tribal life. He then considers the multiple ways in which the people of Malawi relate to insects, covering their use as medicine and their roles in songs, proverbs, riddles, folklore and religion.

A seventy five page appendix offers a taxon by taxon and species by species survey of the common insects of Malawi, focusing on those that have cultural salience.

March 2006

External links:
- buy from or
Related reviews:
- Brian Morris - Anthropological Studies of Religion: An Introductory Text
- books about Africa + African history
- more insects + entomology
- more ethnography
%T Insects and Human Life
%A Morris, Brian
%I Berg
%D 2004
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 1859738478
%P 317pp