The farmers of Majuli, a riverine island on the Brahmaputra River in Assam, have turned the beetles that attacked their crops into their newest cuisine. Majuli, one of the largest fresh water islands in the world, has been severely infested by the beetle lepidiota mausuet, locally known as the hati-puk, since 2005. It has taken a severe toll on agriculture.

The island has a crop area of over 30,000 hectares, and up to 70% of this is attacked by this pest. Now the farmers, with support from the Assam Agricultural University, catch the pest before they damage the crops and eat them!

Beetle boom

According to scientists at the Assam Agricultural University, although the insect was always present on the island, it became a menace only after 2005. They blame climate change for this infestation.

Research undertaken by the university show that the pest severely damages potato, sugarcane and green gram cultivation. As a result, thousands of farmers have been affected.

Badal Bhattacharyya advising a farmer on how to deal with the beetle [image courtesy AINSAP]
Badal Bhattacharyya advising a farmer on how to deal with the beetle [image courtesy AINSAP]

“The insect is found in such large numbers only in Majuli, probably because of the soil content and availability of water,” said Badal Bhattacharyya, senior scientist and principal investigator at the Department of Entomology of Assam Agricultural University.

According to Bhattacharyya, increase in temperature, erratic rainfall and early onset of summer has led to an increase in the beetle population. At the same time, the migratory Siberian crane (Grus leucogeranus), which is a major predator of the pest, has stopped wintering there.

“The Siberian crane used to ensure that the beetle is kept in check, but nowadays, the bird rarely comes here,” he said.

A new cuisine

However, now the people don’t need the Siberian crane to catch the beetle, as they have developed delicious beetle dishes, which have gained immense popularity among the people.

Bhattacharyya and his research team have been popularising the dish with the slogan, “Eat it before it eats your crops.”

On being asked if the beetle was safe to eat, he explained that at the university, research was carried out on the beetle, and it was found that it is rich in protein and carbohydrates, there is no toxic content and the insect could be nutritional food for humans and poultry.

The many dishes made from the beetle: roasted beetle fry with tomato, plain roasted beetle and beetle curry have gained popularity. According to locals, it tastes like prawn.

“We started these dishes here three years back and it has been a huge hit, and became popular instantly. Apart from local people, even tourists have tasted the dishes and have liked those,” said Milanjyoti Kuli, a farmer from the Kuli-chapori village in Majuli who is taking steps to popularise these dishes.

Dining at the pestaurant

Kuli, with support from the Assam Agricultural University, has started an eatery dubbed Pestaurant, which prepares these dishes for locals and tourists. Kuli said the dishes have not been priced yet, and the mission at present is just to popularise these dishes.

Advertising the Pestaurant [image courtesy AINSAP]
Advertising the Pestaurant [image courtesy AINSAP]

“The results have been much better than our expectations and very soon, we plan to start a few restaurants that will sell these dishes," said Kuli. "We are confident that it will be a huge success as Majuli is a major tourism destination for both domestic and foreign tourists."

He said the university has already launched a campaign to popularise the dishes all across the island.

Locals pointed out that there is an opportunity for entrepreneurship as well, since the dishes are universally popular, and safe to eat. “We will start a restaurant next year on the island, and if it yields good results, we might plan to launch the dishes outside Majuli as well,” said Bhubon Bora, a local youth from the Kamalabari village in Majuli. Bora added that the basic raw material for the dishes – the beetles – comes for free, so it is a venture worth undertaking.

Going for the grub

The real target, though, is not the mature beetle but its grub (larva). “The white grub lives in the soil for nearly two years before reaching maturity, all the while gnawing at the roots of crop and causing widespread damage,” said Bhattacharyya. "The adult beetle does not feed on any plant, so the concern is the grub."

He pointed out that the ideal time to catch beetles and to reduce their population is between April and June, when they come out to mate. After that, they burrow deep underground and produce 30-35 eggs in one batch. At these depths, insecticides do not reach them.

To deal with the situation, villagers have been mobilised to catch the beetles when they come out to mate. Farmers groups are formed, with 10 members each, and they have played a major role in spreading information on how to deal with the menace. There are now 40 such groups.

“We catch them by shining light on the fields as they are attracted to light, and in these two months thousands of beetles are caught,” said Bhattacharyya.

Farmer groups posing with the captured beetles [image courtesy AINSAP]
Farmer groups posing with the captured beetles [image courtesy AINSAP]

The initiative started in 2012 through mass campaigning, and between April to June that year over 43,000 beetles were caught. “The beetles are caught using solar LED light traps, and are placed in both cultivated and non-cultivated areas,” he said. This year the farmers had caught 170,000 thousand beetles.

Farmers had suffered to the point of giving up, but this beetle catching has changed their prospects. Jibon Payeng, another farmer from the Kuli-Chapori village, said that in 2011 he had almost made up his mind to look for other earning options.

“However after 2012 things seem to have returned to normalcy, and the pest attacks have reduced greatly,” said Payeng. "We are hopeful that within the next few years, things will further improve."

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.