Estimated reading time: 20 minutes
Bugs are an obscure survival food that most people shy away from. For many people in the western world, eating bugs is something only done on a dare and never as a standard part of mealtime. It’s also thought of as a wilderness survival tactic when other food is unavailable.
But like so many things, many cultures around the world see insects as a regular part of their diet. And it’s not all about indigenous people living in primitive or remote locations. In actual fact, more than 2 billion people around the world see bugs as a regular if not desired part of their diet.
Across Asia, many types of insects are a regular menu item from street food stalls to restaurants. In Africa and Latin America, insects often find their way into meals as an added ingredient, a side dish, and a frequent snack. If you think about it, seafood choices like lobster, crab, and crawfish are distant relatives of the insect family sharing a common exoskeleton. In fact, scorpions and lobsters share the same ancient ancestor.
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It’s Not About Foraging Wild Bugs
A standard wilderness survival tactic is to know, identify, and potentially consume wild insects to survive. In that situation there is a broad range of possibilities from cicadas to grubs. But the addition of insects to a regular, everyday diet as a viable protein source fails when wild foraging is the primary method of collection. Wild bugs are hard to catch, and good luck in January.
That’s why so many cultures actively raise insects in self-contained insect farms. They provide a steady source of protein. However, there is a problem with insect farming.
Many insects mature across a complex lifecycle that makes some types of insect farming too complex to manage as a viable food security solution. This is scientifically referred to as complex metamorphosis. Many survival experts tout the benefit of dragonfly larvae, cicadas, various tree grubs, and even maggots as a survival food source. Unfortunately, they make a very poor choice for insect farming.
- Cicadas may be an excellent protein source when they emerge, but you’ll have to wait up to 17 years for them to mature.
- Maggots are a viable option for survival food, but you’ll have to live with a cloud of flies right out of a biblical plague to raise them.
- Grubs and mealworms also take a long time to mature under the bark of trees going through a 4-stage metamorphosis, and the beetles that result may be edible but the overall task is both labor intensive and time consuming.
- Termites are an excellent survival food possibility, but woe to the insect farmer who allows them to escape into a structure on their property.
The point is that you have to be highly selective about the insects you choose to raise in an insect farm environment. You want insects that mature simply without complex lifecycles. You also want insects that don’t require specific or complicated environments like logs or deep ponds to hatch and mature. If you’re going to use that much space to raise bugs, you might as well raise livestock or start a fish farm.
Finally, you don’t want to raise insects that represent a threat to you or your environment. Spiders and scorpions are another often recommended survival food that can quickly make insect farming complicated if not dangerous.
Are They Safe to Eat?
Most insects are as safe to eat as any animal. There’s actually a name for eating bugs. It’s “entomophagy.” There are always exceptions, but most insects are cooked in one way, shape, or form which goes a long way toward making them safe to eat.
What’s significant is that many of them actually taste good too. Fried grasshoppers are considered a delicacy by children in many countries and serve as their crunchy alternative to potato chips or pretzels.
Nutritional Value of Insects
The nutritional value of insects is both significant and surprising. Insects are very high in protein. In fact, they’re the most abundant protein source on Earth. Ounce for ounce, they have as much protein as a steak and nowhere near the amount of saturated fats you get from traditional animal proteins like beef, pork, and poultry. Better yet, they’re high in omega-3 fatty acids.
Grasshoppers, crickets, and earthworms are rich in protein and contain significantly higher sources of minerals such as iron, zinc, copper, and magnesium than beef. Yet pound for pound, they require less land, water, and feed than traditional livestock. Insect farming and processing also produces significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions. Not only do insects produce less waste, their excrement, called frass, is an excellent fertilizer and soil amender.
Agnes Kalibata, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ special envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit, says that farming insects could provide an elegant solution to the intertwined crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, hunger, and malnutrition. Insects are 60% dry weight protein.
Why Would You Eat Bugs
For some, the idea of eating bugs is disgusting, but there are events that could make eating insects a viable option if not a necessary step.
Catastrophic Natural Disasters
A catastrophic natural disaster is defined as a wide-ranging impact on a large population over whole regions or countries with a duration extending beyond the scope of a typical recoverable event. Massive volcanic eruptions, large scale tsunamis, devastating earthquakes, and other natural disasters are examples that occur on such a scale that a society struggles for months if not years to recover.
Manmade disasters from wars to economic depressions can have a similar impact, compromising both the availability of the food supply or causing prices to spike so much that many people simply can’t afford to eat. Civil war is the most common manmade disaster, and corrupt regimes from North Korea to Myanmar have often left large parts of their population starving, with insects as their only source of protein.
Pandemics aren’t unique to humans. Livestock pandemics have affected millions of farm animals from Bird Flu to Hoof and Mouth disease. We just don’t hear about them as much. Complicating matters is the way that a pandemic could grow to impossible proportions given the high-density practices used in commercial animal husbandry.
The unfortunate response has been the willful overuse of antibiotics to keep animals healthy. The end result is the growing potential for a pathogen to evolve variants with a resistance to all antibiotic treatments, making the future of livestock both questionable and improbable.
It’s curious that it would take events of this magnitude to make some people consider insects as a food option, but when the only alternative is malnutrition or even starvation, it’s an option worth knowing and understanding.
There are also technical and cultural barriers to overcome before bugs compete with beef (or any other meat) for space on the global dinner plate. While two billion people—mostly in Africa, Latin America, and Asia—already eat insects, in Europe and North America, bugs are more likely to be associated with filth, not food. But attitudes are starting to change.
Canada’s nationwide grocery chain Loblaws has been stocking locally produced cricket powder since 2018, and in January the European Union food safety agency declared yellow mealworms safe for human consumption, allowing producers to sell insect-based foods throughout the continent. Analysts at Barclays Bank now estimate that the insect protein market could reach $8bn by 2030, up from less than $1bn today. Still, that’s a fraction of beef’s $324 billion.
The Foraging, Hunting and Fishing Assumption
Many people assume that a survival response to a food shortage following a disaster can be resolved through hunting, fishing, and wild foraging for plants. While that’s an option that shouldn’t be overlooked, the ability of someone to find enough food on a daily basis while hunting, fishing, and foraging is a dangerous assumption, especially when everybody else is trying to do the same thing.
This is particularly true for people living in urban and suburban environments, and even someone in a wilderness area will be quick to tell you that fishing and hunting bring no guarantees and that wild foraging is meager and bleak in the cold and frigid months of the year. But insects aren’t going to be easy to find in winter either.
The Insect Farming Solution
Insect farming accomplishes a number of things for anyone pursuing insects as a protein food source. Here are the top 12 reasons to consider an insect farm:
- Insect farming promises a steady supply of an insect species that is easily sustainable.
- Insect farming can be done at all times of year assuming they are raised in an environment above freezing and ideally at the optimum temperature for the species.
- Insect farming allows you to harvest a significant quantity of insects beyond what you may be able to capture in the wild and with much less time and effort.
- Insect farming ensures you are eating the most beneficial species of an insect with the best nutritional characteristics because you can choose the specific species for your farms.
- Insect farming is compact and portable compared to the large scale and size of traditional structures used to raise livestock.
- Insects are prolific breeders and will multiply and mature in a short period of time.
- Insects are also an excellent food source for any livestock you choose to raise, especially poultry like chickens, turkeys, and ducks.
- Insects are resilient to disease and weather extremes. They have had 500 million years to evolve defenses against all that has ever ailed them.
- Insect farming is cheap. They’re not fussy, don’t ask for much in terms of food and water, and if you lose a herd of insects, you can find new breeding stock in your backyard for free.
- Insect farming is easy. Compared to the labor of livestock, raising insects is easy. So easy even a child could do it, and many of them do.
- Insect farming is highly sustainable. Brood stock is easily found and free, and the feed is just as easy to find and just as free.
- Insect farming is fun. That’s not always easy to say when it comes to raising traditional farm animals. It’s especially hard for some people when it’s time to slaughter and butcher the animals. For some reason, insects don’t inspire the same emotions when it comes time to harvest and slaughter. Maybe it’s because we’ve swatted too many mosquitoes and stepped on more than a few ants.
What Kind of Insects Can You Farm?
Not as many as you might think. What you’re trying to do is narrow down the insect types to those that produce the most protein with the least amount of time and effort.
What some people don’t take the time to ponder is the complex lifecycles of many bugs. Some go from an egg to a larval stage and even a secondary larval stage before maturing to a final stage that must continue to feed and grow to reach final maturity. This can take months, multiple environments, and—in the case of Cicadas—years.
You want to find the low-impact, low-maintenance insects that are hardy, have simple life-cycles, and not too demanding with regards to environments, food, and time. To make this simple, we’ll start with the two easiest and most productive:
There are many more edible insects, from ants to aphids, but they just don’t produce enough food as a protein source to be worth the trouble of farming.
All insects must also be cooked in some way before being eaten. Some insects like crickets and grasshoppers can be infested with nematodes. Others, like worms, have bacteria in their gut to digest anything they eat.
If the thought of nematodes and worm bacteria make you squeamish, remember that pork has been historically known to contain parasites leading to trichinosis, and salmonella on raw chicken is an ongoing concern, to say nothing of the Mad Cow disease that sometimes affects beef.
All things considered, most insects may be safer to eat than meat, assuming you cook them first.
What Does Insect Farming Look Like
If you ever had an ant farm as a kid you’re starting to get the idea although not all insect farms have that appearance of an ant farm and none of them require a glass panel for viewing. Here’s a brief overview:
|Insect Farm Habitat and Organic Matter:||Paperboard egg cartons in a large wooden box or crate.||In a mix of sphagnum moss and potting soil in a large plastic tub, cooler, purchased worm tube or kid’s swimming pool.|
|Peak Season for Harvesting in the Wild:||Summer months (can be found year-round) or you can buy them at most pet stores where they’re sold as pet food for amphibians.||Spring (when it’s wet).|
|Preferred Food:||Vegetable and fruit scraps you would typically toss into a compost heap.||Finely chopped or ground vegetable and fruit scraps.|
|Notes Before Eating:||Pull off the head, wing case, wings, and legs, if present.||Boil for 10 minutes in 2 changes of water ro remove mucous.|
Cricket farming is the most popular type of insect farm. You can make a cricket breeding container from a large plastic bin and some aluminum window screening. Just cut off half the lid and glue the window screening on the area you removed. Then place some upside-down empty egg cartons inside the container so your crickets have a place to hide. Punch some holes in the egg cartons so they can get in and out.
Inside your main container, you’ll want to put a medium-sized food container with a lid, like a margarine tub, and a smaller food container. Each container needs to have a hole cut out so the crickets can get inside. The purpose of these containers is to create environments with higher humidity levels than the main container itself. The smallest container will be where crickets will lay their eggs, and the medium-sized container will be where they rear their young.
The smaller containers should be filled with grass or coconut hair (coir) to act as a bedding and kept moist at all times.
Over the top of the screening on your container, you’ll want to put a 150-watt heat lamp. The container should be kept between 29 – 32 C (85 – 90 F.) Try not to let your crickets get below 27 C (80 F) or above 35 C (95 F.) A thermometer in the container helps.
Now your container is all set up and you can capture some wild crickets to get started, or buy them at a pet store or online. This is your first breeding stock. Be sure you get a mix of males and females. They are quite easy to tell apart. Female crickets will have a needle-like appendage at the back that male crickets lack. They use this when they’re laying eggs.
Feeding Your Crickets
Your crickets need to have access to food and water at all times. Otherwise they will start to cannibalize each other, which isn’t a pretty sight. You don’t want to simply set out a dish of water or you risk your crickets drowning. Instead, soak up water in a sponge or clean piece of cloth and then set it on a plastic lid.
You’ll want to change this cloth out every 3 or 4 days so bacteria and other nasty microorganisms don’t start to build up. Your crickets will be happy to eat pretty much whatever kitchen scraps you can give to them. They’ll eat leafy greens along with vegetable and fruit scraps.
It’s actually advisable to try and give your crickets a source of protein. The more variation they have in their diet, the healthier they’re likely to be. Think cooked soybeans and even small amounts of raw, ground beef or dead bugs from the tray of a mosquito zapper.
Maintaining Your Cricket Farm
Every week, you’ll want to give your cricket nursery container a good cleaning. A second replacement container standing by helps. Then you can just transfer the whole thing over without much trouble and alternate between the two sets of containers each week. After one or two weeks, you’ll start to notice baby crickets hatching.
Earthworms are the easiest to raise and larger species like Night Crawlers produce the most protein. They’re usually baked, roasted, or sautéed and often added as an ingredient in recipes. A side benefit is that earthworms actually help to compost organic materials and, like crickets, can also be used to feed livestock or fish in a home fish farm.
You can buy short tubs that stack on the Internet or design your own. Usually, they are about 6-inches high and about 3-feet square with a top and bottom. The best designs have a bottom that can be opened to make harvesting easier. Earthworms tend to favor the bottom of any container, and the ability to release the bottom puts the worms on top. Here’s an idea of how to construct a simple worm farm
The assumption is that worms love dirt, and while they survive quite nicely in the ground, an earthworm farmer prefers moist sphagnum moss or other loose mosses called worm bedding that give the earthworms room to move, meet, and mate. Ground up fruit and vegetable trimmings are tossed into the moss and mixed in a bit as feed.
Keep your earthworm farm material moist at all time. Worms are mostly water and need to drink as much as they eat.
Harvest when you can dig into your moss and find some good sized worms, but don’t harvest all of them. You want them to continue to reproduce, so always leave some behind for breeding stock.
Some Quick Recipe Ideas
If you’re like most people, you’re still quite hesitant about this whole eating bugs idea. Maybe some of these recipes will give you the courage to give it a try.
Cricket flour is essentially crickets ground into flour with a food processor. It’s usually added to other flour and serves as a protein supplement for anything you would make or bake with flour.
- Freeze to put crickets into an inactive, coma-like state.
- Blanch as an extra sanitary precaution.
- Dry-roast to remove moisture.
- Grind to desired consistency.
- Combine with other flour to achieve desired baking or cooking properties.
But it’s not just about turning bugs to dust. There are many recipes that call for using the whole bug in dishes that are both traditional and unexpected.
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1/2 yellow onion, minced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1-2 teaspoons minced Serrano pepper, seeds and ribs removed
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 2 limes
- 2 cups dry-roasted crickets
- 8 corn tortillas
- 1 jar tomatillo salsa, store-bought or homemade
- 1 avocado, sliced
- 1/2 cup cilantro leaves, for garnish
- Heat a large skillet over medium heat and add the oil. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the Serrano, cumin, and season with salt and cook for another 2 minutes until fragrant. Add the zest and juice of one of the limes and cut the other lime into wedges and set aside.
- Add the crickets to the pan and toss to coat just until warmed through.
- To assemble the tacos, warm each tortilla over the flame of the stovetop burner, about 10 seconds per side, and place on a plate. Alternately, wrap the tortillas in a damp kitchen towel and place on a sheet pan in a low oven to keep warm.
- Top each tortilla with the cricket mixture, some salsa, a slice of avocado, and cilantro leaves. Serve with a lime wedge.
A ½ pound of earthworms (1 cup) has 708 calories and contains 70% protein, 11% fat, and up to 21% carbohydrates. Potassium at 1820 mg, phosphorus 1590 mg, calcium 444 mg, sodium 965 mg, chloride 910 mg, iron 50.4 mg, zinc 17.7 mg, copper 1.5 mg, iodine 0.38 mg, and selenium 0.40 mg.
Additionally, eating them reduces cholesterol as their main oil is Omega 3 fatty acid. The earthy flavor of the worms blends well with certain dishes and spices, particularly cumin, curry, paprika and chili powder.
The first step with any earthworm is to give them a day to purge their gut. This is done by letting them rest in moist sphagnum moss without any food. They will leave their droppings in the moss and you can easily pick them out. You could also allow them to soak in room temperature water for 3 to 4 hours. They won’t die and they will purge themselves quickly.
If you are going to keep them for any length of time before cooking and after purging, put them in the refrigerator or a 60º F room in a plastic container filled with moist sphagnum moss. They’ll keep fine for a couple of days. You could also rinse them and freeze them for up to 3 months.
The first step before cooking is to boil the earthworms to remove the mucous that surrounds them. Boiling for 10 minutes followed by a rinse and boiling again for 10 minutes should do the trick. If you still feel there’s mucous on the worms, boil and rinse again.
The worms can be baked on a foil-lined sheet for 5 to 15 minutes or until crisp, or grilled over charcoal until dry and crispy. They can then be sautéed in butter or olive oil. You want them crisp before cooking in any kind of oil to reduce their water content which could cause them to burst with a splash of hot oil if thrown directing into a frying pan.
Speaking of which, you might want to think twice about deep frying. Earthworms are 90% water and will burst when dropped into boiling oil.
- 1 cup earthworms
- 1/2 large onion, chopped
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 bouillon cube
- 1 cup yogurt or sour cream
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 cup mushrooms
- Flour for coating
- Roll the worms in flour, brown in butter, add salt to taste.
- Add bouillon and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Sauté onions and mushrooms in butter.
- Add onions and mushrooms to the worms.
- Stir in sour cream or yogurt.
- Serve over rice or noodles.
Steam the earthworms with onions, garlic, and broccoli. Pour over a sauce of butter and soy sauce. Serve over noodles or rice.
- 1 1/2 lbs. ground earthworms
- 1/2 cup butter, melted
- 1 teaspoon lemon rind, grated
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 cup dry bread crumbs
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 cup sour cream
- Combine earthworms, melted butter, lemon rind, salt, and pepper.
- Stir in soda water.
- Shape into patties and dip in beaten egg, then in bread crumbs.
- Fry in butter and cook for 10 minutes, turning once.
- Place patties on buns and serve with heated sour cream on top of traditional hamburger toppings and condiments.
Insects You Want to Avoid Farming or Eating
Even though many cultures around the world eat a broad range of insects, some bugs just aren’t worth the trouble. Many have complex lifecycles that make farming them difficult and complicated. Others are either poisonous or can acquire toxic characteristics. It’s probably best to stick to the tame counterparts like crickets and earthworms and leave the spiders and wasps to those who have piranhas in their aquariums.
|Slugs and Snails:||Escargot is a delicacy in France and they can be raised with some difficulty but avoid any wild snails or slugs. They can eat anything including poisonous mushrooms and become just as poisonous as a result.|
|Spiders, Scorpions, Wasps, Hornets and Non-Honey Producing Bees:||Most of them bite and some are poisonous. Not worth the trouble or the risk.|
|Caterpillars:||Many are toxic and the complexity of their lifecycle from butterfly or moth to caterpillar makes raising them for food very complicated.|
Should You Do This?
That all depends on your sense of adventure and resources you need to farm insects. A detached barn, shed, or garage is a good place to start unless you enjoy the sound of a thousand crickets chirping in the basement all night. Then again, earthworms are nice and quiet.
A lot depends on the situation, too. Extreme times following any catastrophic disaster force us to find new and innovative ways survive. Having the knowledge and some degree of experience with insect farming is good survival skill to understand or at least experiment with. Give it a try if you’re so inclined, but you might want to make sure your spouse agrees before you fill the garage with a few thousand bugs.
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