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More Than 2 Billion People Around the World Eat Edible Insects as a Regular Part of Their Diet. You Can, Too.
Most people in North America think of insects as pests. In many parts of Asia, Africa, and South America, they’re considered a delicacy and a regular source of protein. As a survival food, the nutrients and particularly the protein in edible insects can go a long way to keeping you healthy and sustained when traditional food sources don’t exist.
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Eating Bugs Comes With a Caution
Some bugs you just shouldn’t eat. We’ll go down a list in a bit. Others require varying degrees of preparation to avoid choking, reduce or neutralize toxins, or simply make them taste better.
In many instances, insects as a food source are used in combination with other ingredients. It’s not just about popping a bug in your mouth, and we’ll get into cooking basics and preparation tips along with seasonings that actually make them quite tasty.
The Catching and Collecting Problem
It’s one thing to know you can eat a grasshopper but catching enough of them to make a meal is something else. That goes for just about any other insect as well. There are techniques that make it easier to catch and collect enough bugs to eat—from nets to cleverly placed lights.
In many instances, a variety of insect species are used in the same recipe. In fact, you can buy them by the bag on Amazon. Using a variety of insects makes the whole collecting process a bit simpler when one species proves to be elusive.
An Urban Perspective
A jungle is a great place to find insects to supplement a survival diet, but few people in North America can relate to a jungle environment. But even in an urban jungle, we can easily find our share of bugs.
Here are the top 10 contenders for an urban survival diet based on insect protein.
High in protein and one of the most popular insect foods. According to the Audubon Society, they’re usually found in grassy fields. That’s probably where they got their name. They’re typically deep-fried or sautéed and seasoned with salt. They’re actually sold at the Seattle Mariners baseball park toasted with lime, salt, and chili powder.
Crickets are nocturnal and often found under logs, bark, or leaves. They are recognized as a good source of iron, protein, and vitamin B-12. They’re often ground into a powder and mixed with flour, but they’re also fried or sautéed like grasshoppers.
A South American delicacy, the mature ants have a lemony citrus flavor from the formic acid they exude and are often mixed into soups, added to stuffing, or tossed on salads as a seasoning. The larvae and pupae are often mixed with rice and served on banana leaves as a side dish.
Three and a half ounces of red ants produce 14 grams of protein and 5.7 milligrams of iron.
Mature bees are rarely eaten, but if the stingers are removed, they can easily be eaten in soups, stuffing, or on salads. The larvae are prized as an insect food and have a honey flavor described as a fatty, buttery texture. High in amino acids and B vitamins, they are popular around the world from Australia to Brazil.
Nightcrawlers are the porterhouse of insect foods due to their size. They can be boiled but are usually deep-fried and salted and eaten like pretzels.
For the grub gourmet. This is the larval form of many insects and, they’re usually found under the bark of dead trees and under rotting logs. Some are actually high in Omega-3 fatty acids; all provide protein, vitamins, and minerals like copper, sodium, potassium, iron, zinc, and selenium.
Some cultures eat them raw, but we recommend cooking any bug. They’re usually dry-roasted in an oven and in Mexico are sometimes used with cornflour to make tortillas.
Beetles are also high in protein and several minerals and vitamins. A giant water beetle produces around 20 grams of protein on just a 3.5-ounce serving of the crunchy insect. One 3.5-ounce serving of the palm worm beetle generates almost 14 grams of protein. Beetles of all species supply you with more than enough iron, zinc, and calcium to thrive during a prolonged stint living in the urban wilds.
You can find beetles in the same places that you find many of the other edible insects on this list: under fallen tree limbs and other timber that sit in damp conditions. They’re usually roasted in a cast iron pan or in the oven on a baking sheet.
8. June bugs
These are nice, big bugs. They’re also easy to catch because they’re slow-moving and will knock themselves out banging into a light at night. You’ll find June bugs on plants during the late evening hours and under plants and trees during the day. They have 13.4 grams of protein per 100 grams of June bug.
9. Roly Pollies
These insect armadillos are some of the oldest bugs on earth. They’re easy to find under logs and bark and actually have a subtle, shrimplike flavor. Boil them up and toss them in some pasta for a little fettuccine Roly Poly. Assuming you have fettuccine.
As good as grasshoppers only bigger. Lose the legs and wings and deep fry.
Some Bad Bugs
Just like wild foraging for plants, some things in nature aren’t meant to be eaten. Of the 1.1 million species of insects, only 1,700 have been identified as edible. The point is simple, don’t munch on every bug you find.
The usual suspects include mosquitos and their larvae, ticks, spiders, and centipedes. They all have varying degrees of disease or venom that simply isn’t worth the risk when so many other bugs abound.
Surprisingly, cockroaches are edible, but urban cockroaches are never recommended and wild cockroaches are darn hard to find. Even scorpions are edible (except for the stingers) and scorpions are actually distant relatives of both lobsters and crayfish.
Snails and slugs also bring their share of problems, and some are highly toxic. Even if you love escargot, think of snails the same way you think of mushrooms. Some are edible but some are deadly. Is either one of them worth the risk?
As a general rule, avoid insects that are brightly colored, emit an odor, or live near areas where pesticides may be in use like farms and outlying rural neighborhoods or orchards. Just because they survived a pesticide doesn’t mean they’re safe to eat.
You also have to be mindful of the fact that insects will feed on just about anything. You are what you eat, and the same is true of any bug. One solution is to feed any insects you trap some clean, green leaves for a day or two. That’s not necessary with ants or bees but any bug is worth a day or two in an enclosed jar or screened box with some fresh water and green leaves or grains—just in case.
Caterpillars are also identified as edible, although some are poisonous or at least toxic like the tomato caterpillar and monarch caterpillars. If you decide to try a caterpillar, avoid any that are brightly colored or have hairs of any color or in any configuration.
Catching and Collecting Tips
Many insects are attracted to light. This includes some varieties of beetles, June Bugs, and Cicadas. Regardless of the light source, a light can make short work or gathering enough insects for a meal. Surrounding the light with some mosquito netting and a wide opening for the insects to enter can make it easier when you bunch up the netting and pick the bugs out before placing them in a container.
An old fisherman’s trick for harvesting earthworms was to spread newspapers on the ground and soak them with water. After a day or so, earthworms could be found underneath the papers. You can also find large nightcrawlers poking up from the ground after heavy rain.
If you saturate a piece of cloth in honey and drop it into a mason jar with a hole about the size of a dime in the lid and place it on a picnic table or stump, you’ll attract your share of bees to the honey. They’ll eventually find their way out, but most will wander around in the jar a bit before they escape. Shake them robustly in the jar to kill them and start collecting.
If you leave the lid off of the mason jar and place it on the ground, you’ll easily collect a good share of ants. If you don’t have honey, any sweet will do, but bees really seem to zero in on the honey.
If you have an electric bug zapper with an ultraviolet light, you can take the bottom off and allow the zapped bugs to fall onto a tray or tarp. You’ll have to sort through some bugs to find the ones you want to eat but it beats chasing bugs with a net. Speaking of nets…
Grasshoppers are hard to catch, but if you have a butterfly net or a large, fine mesh fishing net you might catch your share of grasshoppers, cicadas, and crickets with a net. Crickets tend to come out in the evening and are easier to catch than grasshoppers. Newly emerged or emerging cicadas are also easy to nab and grab, although their season is periodic and measured in years from 3 to 17 years apart.
Pulling bark off of a dead tree can give you a goldmine of grubs, beetles, and Roly Pollies. Don’t forget to lift any logs, matted leaves, or rocks, and you may find a few earthworms in the mix, but forget the centipedes. Most are venomous to varying degrees ranging from toxic to poisonous.
From ant nests to bee’s nests, this is another easy way to gather a lot of bugs fast. Don’t forget to look for any eggs or larvae, and remember to smoke any bees nest to calm the bees before harvesting. If you’re allergic to bee stings, forget about it.
Basic Bug Prep
Insects are invertebrate animals. That means they have no internal skeleton and only a hard, outer shell or exoskeleton. That’s good for a bug, but can be bad for you. Exoskeletons can be sharp, sort of like swallowing a razor blade. For this reason, many parts of an insect need to be removed before eating.
Here are some common parts removed from certain bugs before they hit the plate:
Legs and Antennas
The legs on a grasshopper and cricket have long, sharp barbs. They jut out from their legs like needles. If you think a chicken bone in the throat is bad, try choking on a mouth full of grasshopper needles. Remove them. The same goes for their antennas.
The same is true for most other insects, from beetles to bumblebees. They have tiny claws on their feet that allow them to hold onto branches and leaves. It’s not something you have to worry about with very small insects like ants, and it certainly isn’t a problem with grubs and earthworms, but any insect with an exoskeleton is worth a look. Don’t sweat the rolly pollies; the shells soften when cooked.
Ants are loaded with formic acid and while some people like the lemony, vinegarlike taste, you can easily detox ants by boiling them for a moment or two. Insects with a strong odor should be avoided; but if you smell a faint odor, a little boiling water will detox the bug.
Heads and Tails
Some bugs have sharp mouthparts, especially beetles. It’s also recommended that you pull the heads from grasshoppers and crickets, although some people crunch away after a deep-fry. Tails are another matter and by tails, we mean stingers like you’d find on any mature bee or wasp. If the bug has a stinger, pull it out. It’s just another needle you don’t want in your throat.
Mud and Guts
Earthworms eat dirt. That means their intestinal tract is filled with dirt and anything living in that dirt may still be active. Toss any worms or grubs into a mixture of damp sawdust for a couple of days. Keep them alive but let them work the stuff out of their system. Shredded, damp newspaper works as well.
A lot of bugs have wings. Big wings. Grasshoppers and june bugs come to mind. Get rid of ‘em. It’s just one more thing you don’t want caught in your throat. Smaller delicate wings on bees aren’t an issue, but larger wings on any bug and the wing cases that you see on june bugs should be removed.
If you watch any YouTube videos of people preparing insects for a meal, you’ll usually see them using a wok to deep fry the bug du jour. This gets them nice and crispy and with a little salt you can pretend they’re pretzels.
Boiling is another option for ants, larvae, and grubs, but make it a quick boil. Too long and the bugs turn to mush, unless that’s what you want.
Roasting in the oven is another option and makes the bugs crispy, similar to deep frying. Some survival experts talk about cooking them over an open fire, but bugs tend to be so small and delicate that even the faintest coals can burn them to a crisp. If you can, stick with frying, boiling, or roasting, although cooking them in a cast-iron frying pan or wok could work just fine over an open fire.
Regardless of the bug or the cooking style, it’s a good idea to cook any insect you plan to eat. It not only neutralizes any toxins present in the bug but will kill any microbes that may reside in their gut.
Seasonings can range from salt to hot sauce or any other seasoning that you would use to flavor food.
Mix It Up
You can combine any number of insects in a recipe and fry them at the same time or roast them all on a tray in the oven. Some cultures grind crickets into flour and mix it with grain flour for biscuits and flatbreads.
Other cultures use everything from bee larvae to ants as a condiment or seasoning in everything from rice to soups and salads. Ants on seafood impart an acidic lemony flavor and deep-fried earthworms crunch like French fries.
Maybe They’re Worth a Try
Before you dismiss the idea of eating bugs, you might want to give it a try. Most people start with the deep-fried grasshoppers. You should also do some homework if you think you’re ever going to make this a serious survival option. Just keep an open mind and remember, 2 billion people can’t be wrong.
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