Some Edible Species

Some Edible Species

As this site is about insects, we thought it would be nice to adorn it with a few. The six display drawers below were part of a traveling exhibit put together in 1991 for showing in middle and elementary schools in the Madison area. The title of the exhibit was “Insects as Food in Different Cultures.”  To help get the kid’s attention, we loaded as many big, showy insects as possible (all edible in one life stage or another) into the exhibit cases. At a given school, the exhibit would be set up usually on a Monday; then, on about Thursday or Friday, I would show up with a slide show, followed by a question/answer period.  Kids in those early age groups can get pretty excited about insects, so these were fun sessions. Later on, we may use the insects shown here to expand a little on the taxonomy and biology of the edible species.

Display Case 1:Butterflies and moths (Order Lepidoptera).The larvae (caterpillars) of many species of moths (and a few species of butterflies) are used as food. They are a particularly important source of nutrition (protein, fat, vitamins and minerals) in Africa. In one country alone, Congo (Kinshaza) (formerly Zaire), more than 30 species are harvested. Some caterpillars are sold not only in the local village markets, but are shipped by the tons from one country to another. There are even processing plants where caterpillars are canned in Botswana and South Africa. In the rural countryside, they are usually dried in the sun before being sold in the market. Of course, nobody eats adult moths and butterflies – their wings and bodies are clothed with the small flat scales and hairs that make them so colorful.

   Display Case 2: True bugs (Order Hemiptera).Most of the insects in this order that are used as food (shown in upper left) live in water. The famous “Mexican caviar,” or ahuahutle, is composed of the eggs of several species of aquatic Hemiptera; these have formed the basis for aquatic “farming” in Mexico for centuries. One species in Asia, the “giant water bug,” is now exported from         Thailand to Asian food shops in the United States. The true bugs undergo incomplete metamorphosis.

 Additional comments on Display Case #2:

 Cicadas (Order Homoptera). This order includes many insects, such as aphids and leafhoppers, which are important agricultural pests, but only the cicadas are used widely as human food. Metamorphosis is incomplete. The nymphs of some species, known as “periodical cicadas,” spend up to 17 years underground where they feed on roots. After 17 years they emerge from the soil, climb up a tree trunk or fence post and molt to the adult stage. Periodical cicadas (a complex of six species in the United States) occur as “broods” which appear above ground only once every several years in any one locality. When they do appear, however, it is often in vast numbers. That is when they are collected as food, sometimes even by school children in the United States. They are delicious when fried or roasted to a golden brown! Many cicadas have shorter life cycles, and some of them were collected as food by Indian tribes in what is now the western United States.  They are eaten regularly in many other countries, especially in Asia, and some are very large. The cicada from Malaysia shown in this display case has a wing span of nearly 8 inches! 

Termites (Order Isoptera). Termites are most widely used as food in Africa. They are social insects with colonies divided into “castes” that include workers, soldiers, winged adults and a queen. Metamorphosis is incomplete. As shown in the display, the queen becomes very large (lower left, right-hand vial), and she lays thousands of eggs. Colonies of some species build huge earthen mounds, called termitaria, which may be up to 20 feet high. Periodically, the winged adults emerge in huge swarms, mate while in flight, and then start new colonies. They are highly attracted to lights, even candlelight, and that is one way they are captured for use as food. The wings are broken off, and, fried, termites are delicious. Even Europeans eat them in Africa. The queens are considered a special treat and are often reserved for children or grandparents.

            Bees, ants and wasps (Order Hymenoptera). These are also social insects but they undergo complete metamorphosis. With bees and wasps, it is usually the bee or wasp “brood” (larvae/pupae) that is eaten. Most adult bees and wasps don’t taste good, but there are exceptions. Canned wasps, wings and all, are sold in Japan, and rice cooked with these wasps was a favorite dish of the late Emperor Hirohito. With ants, it is also the larvae and/or pupae that are usually eaten, but not always. Roasted leafcutter ant abdomens are sold, instead of popcorn, in movie theaters in Colombia, South America. In some cultures, bee nests are collected as much for their bee grubs as for the honey.. They are considered a great delicacy! In Mexico, certain kinds of ant pupae, known as escamoles, are found on the menu in the finest restaurants. They are served fried with butter, or fried with onions and garlic.

Display Case 3: Beetles (Order Coleoptera). Beetles have complete metamorphosis. Larvae, pupae and/or adults of many species are used as food. Obviously, people would not eat adult beetles whole! The hard parts (wings, legs and head) are removed during preparation for cooking. The larvae (sometimes called “grubs”) are soft-bodied.
  Display Case 4: Beetles (Order Coleoptera). Beetles have complete metamorphosis. Larvae, pupae and/or adults of many species are used as food. Obviously, people would not eat adult beetles whole! The hard parts (wings, legs and head) are removed during preparation for cooking. The larvae (sometimes called “grubs”) are soft-bodied. 

Display Case 5: Grasshoppers, crickets, etc. (Order Orthoptera). Grasshoppers and crickets and their relatives have played an important role in the history of human nutrition. Roasting and sautéing are frequently used methods of cooking, after first removing the wings and legs. Seasonings such as onion, garlic, cayenne, chili peppers or soy sauce may be added. Candied grasshoppers, known as inago, are a favorite cocktail snack in Japan. These insects undergo incomplete metamorphosis.

Walking sticks and leaf insects (Order Phasmatodea).  These grotesquely shaped insects are used as food in a few places in Asia and in Papua New Guinea. Incomplete metamorphosis.

Display Case 6: Miscellaneous additional insects used as food.