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Insects as Food for Humans

C. H. Curran, one of the better known earlier researchers on the taxonomy of Diptera (flies), while visiting friends for dinner found some splendid examples of fly larvae in the spinach being served, but ate them without speaking of their presence to his hosts. This incident is an example that combines fortitude, knowledge and manners. The term for eating insects is entomophagy. Throughout the history of mankind, eating insects has actually been a common idea. In the United States, the population has been rather guarded, however, of utilizing this valuable commodity. This causes some amusement when one considers that honey is a common product, but actually has been regurgitated by insects in its production. Parts of insects are consumed by humans more commonly than generally expected. It is impossible to perfectly eliminate all forms of insects when harvesting and processing some crops, thus allowances are set in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration to permit certain numbers of insects or their parts in processed foods. As one would expect, when insects are eaten (in other parts of the world) they are usually those that may be gathered in large numbers. Examples are social insects, such as ants, and especially termites, and locusts that migrate in hordes of millions of individuals. Some human societies actually utilize insects as a major source of protein.

Locusts (actually grasshoppers) are used by various African groups consistently as food. The locust individuals are gathered in the early day before they are active, then boiled before being cleaned and salted. Even the legs are used by grinding and combining them with peanut butter and salt. Locusts are also becoming a food item in South Korea where rice farmers are starting to gather and sell them to supplement their income from rice production.

Termites, with large colonies easily found in arid regions of Africa and Australia, are an available food that has been popular with human societies in those regions. The large queen castes of termites, sometimes three inches in length, are the most desirable individuals. Termites are high in protein, but also contain a high level of fat, and thus have a strong caloric value. In Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire), termites are lightly fried and sold in marketplaces to eat by hand. Termites are also converted into a colorless oil for frying. Protein content of termites is on the same level as dried saltfish taken from the same area, and is much higher than in beef.

Caterpillars and other insect larvae have been eaten by humans in various areas of the world. Caterpillars of the Giant Skippers in Mexico are considered a delicacy, and are collected from the fleshy leaves of the maguey plant. Sold fresh in markets, they are then fried before consumption. They are also sold in cans in stores. Although beetles have hard exterior skeletons when adults, they are excellent food in the grub stage. In Africa, the Goliath Beetle, a type of scarab, is pursued with zeal among the roots of the banana tree. The developed larva may reach a length of five and a half inches. Native Americans in the western United States commonly ate the pupae of a small Shore Fly, Ephvdra hians, which they termed Koo-tsabe, due mostly to the enormous numbers of these insects which accumulated from wind along the shores of brackish lakes at certain seasons of the year.

Sadly, an establishment in Washington, D. C. known as The Insect Club no longer exists. It was a popular restaurant and bar in the early 1990's, and served items that included crickets and mealworms combined and served in delicacies.

Military survival manuals clearly state that insects should be eaten as a perfect alternative when other food sources are not available. The success of this suggestion was widely publicized in 1996, when Lieutenant Scott O'Grady lost his plane to enemy forces in Bosnia, then survived in the forests by eating ants.

Selected References:

Bodenheimer, F. 1951. Insects as Human Food. Junk, The Hague.

Defoliart, G. R. 1975. AInsects as a source of protein.@ Bulletin of the Entomological Society of America, Volume 21: 161-163.

Taylor, R. 1973. Butterflies in My Stomach or Insects in Human Nutrition. Woodbridge, Santa Barbara, California.

 

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Prepared by the Department of Systematic Biology, Entomology Section,
National Museum of Natural History, in cooperation with Public Inquiry Services,
Smithsonian Institution

Information Sheet Number 92

5/99

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