Milkweed bug; Photo:KFawcett
I don’t recall the first time I ate a bug by accident, but it probably happened one summer night when I was streaking across the yard yelling back and forth to friends with my mouth open and my eyes on the flicker of fireflies. I suspect I ended up with as many gnats in my mouth as beetles in the Mason jar.
Then there were the weevils. Occasionally, my mom discovered them in the flour bin. How did they get there? “That’s what happens when the flour gets old,” Mom said. But where did they come from, I wondered. It never occurred to me that the weevils had been in the flour all along and that I had been eating unhatched beetles in cakes and cookies and biscuits for months.
Years later, I discovered moths in the pantry. I opened the door and a moth fluttered out from amongst the cans and boxes and jars. It happened again and again. I looked for a nest of moths but found nothing. Then I discovered a moth inside a bag of Georgia pecans that a friend had sent me for Christmas several months earlier. On closer inspection I noticed that some of the pecans had tiny, pin-sized holes, and there was a pinch of nut dust that had settled in the bottom of the bag — sort of like the sawdust on the floor beneath a board that has been “chewed” by a saw. Still, my first response was to wonder where they came from and how they got into my pantry and into a sealed bag of pecans. Sometimes the obvious answer is the one that’s hardest to acknowledge for one reason or another. (It’s that way with a lot of things in life.) The moths hadn’t come to our house looking for the nuts in the pantry; they had come to our house via the nuts in the pantry.
Though I don’t recall the first time I ate a bug by accident, I do remember the first bug I ate on purpose — a clump of roasted ants in a chunk of chocolate. It had the texture of a Hershey’s Krackel bar — the crispy rice replaced with crispy critters. Not bad — so long as I kept thinking “just like rice” as I ate.
I’ve eaten baby bees, centipedes, and grasshoppers all dipped in chocolate. I can’t say that I really love the taste of bugs, but I rarely turn down chocolate.
Honeybee on Honeycreeper Milkweed; Photo:KFawcett
How many bugs have you eaten today? None? Don’t be too sure. It has been estimated that the average person eats (unintentionally) one pound of insects each year. Some of the bug facts below reveal how the creepy crawlies may make their way to your plate.
1. There are 60,000 species of weevils. They are found in many dry foods, including flour, grains, nuts, cereals, and seeds. They love pancake mix!
2. More than 1,400 different species of edible insects have been recorded. These include cicadas, crickets, grasshoppers, grubs, ants, bees, and caterpillars. Scorpions? Yes, there’s fried scorpion on a stick or the roasted or grilled variety. The scorpion stinger becomes nonpoisonous when exposed to heat, and some nonpoisonous scorpions are even eaten alive!
3. Flavor and color additives in processed foods often come from insects. One of the most widely used is cochineal, which comes from the desiccated bodies of insects harvested mainly in Peru but also found in Mexico and other countries in Latin America. The bug makes the most beautiful red dye, which has been used for centuries to color textiles. Today it’s also used to color cosmetics and food — yogurt and fruit bars and candy and juice and a zillion other foodstuffs that are pink, red, or purple. The label may say natural coloring, cochineal extract, carmine, carminic acid. Or it may simply say “color added.” It takes about 70,000 bugs to produce a pound of carmine. (Don’t be too concerned if you find cochineal in the strawberry ice cream. Bugs are generally safer than the artificial colors that are used in foods unless you are allergic to the critters, and that’s rare.)
4. Insects are low in fat and high in protein. They’re low maintenance and easy to raise as a source of food. In some countries farmers are being encouraged to collect and market pest insects as luxury foods. They get rid of the insects and make money doing it.
5. Insects are eaten in most parts of the world, a practice that has been around since mankind first appeared on the planet.
6. Prisoners supplemented their diets with insects during the Pacific war.
7. The practice of eating insects is called entomophagy.
8. It is acceptable to refer to insects as “bugs,” although not all insects are true bugs. True bugs are defined as belonging to the order Hemiptera. They have a stylet (a mouth shaped like a straw) that they use to suck juices from plants. Insects belong to the class Insecta and they are characterized by three-part bodies, usually two pairs of wings, and three pairs of legs, (e.g., bees and mosquitoes). Arthropods (spiders, ticks, centipedes, etc.) is a separate phylum from bugs and insects.
9. In many countries people eat a variety of insects raw (alive and kicking). For example, termites are eaten straight out of the mound in Kenya.
10. Here are a few other bug delicacies from around the world:
— Emperor Hirohito of Japan favored boiled wasps with rice.
— In Papua New Guinea the walking stick insect is eaten and its legs are used as fishhooks.
— Native Americans roasted june bugs over coals and ate them like popcorn.
— The markets in Mexico have piles of chapulines; the roasted grasshoppers are served with chile and lime.
— Madagascar hissing cockroaches are said to be yummy and have the texture of greasy chicken.
— In Indonesia people dip a reed in palm sap and wave it in the air to catch dragonflies to boil or fry.
— Lemon ants in the Amazon taste like…lemons.
For more buggy reading check out these links:
“Your Introduction to the Wild World of Eating Bugs”
What is Cochineal?
“How to Mindfully Eat a Scorpion”
“Bugs as Food: Humans Bite Back”