You Can Eat These 6 Types of Insects

Beetles are the most common insect consumed worldwide

For many Americans, the prospect of chomping down on insects may seem downright icky; however, this practice, known as entomophagy or insectivory, is common in many tropical and developing countries. In fact, certain species of insects, like the palm weevil, a type of beetle, are considered a delicacy in other parts of the world, such as Asia, Africa, and South America.

There’s no logical reason that Americans should reflexively eschew insects. In reality, insects aren’t that much different from crustaceans, or shellfish, which people eat every day. Insects and shellfish are both arthropods. Additionally, people who are allergic to crawfish, lobster, crab, and other shellfish may also be allergic to insects, a point that not only demonstrates how similar the composition of insects and crustaceans really is but also serves as a probable warning to people who are allergic to shellfish to avoid eating insects, too.

Overall, there are plenty of good reasons to partake of bugs.

First, bugs are chock-full of protein and unsaturated fats, making them ready substitutes for poultry and fish.

Second, harvesting insects is a lot more environmentally friendly than raising livestock. Specifically, livestock are responsible for 14 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions produced worldwide thus making a major contribution to global warming, which could be reduced if more people ate bugs instead of meat.

Third, worldwide requirements of protein are expected to more than double in developing countries by 2050. Many citizens of developing countries can’t afford meat but could afford insects.

Fourth, insect harvesting creates economic opportunities for the people who do it in developing countries. Most of these people are women living in rural communities.

Worldwide, beetles are the most commonly consumed of all insect species, which makes sense because 40 percent of all insects out there are beetles. Let’s take a look at six groups of insects that are commonly consumed in order of decreasing frequency. (Please note that names of insect orders or suborders are in parentheses.)

1
Beetles (Coleoptera)

Beetles
Cooked predaceous diving beetles. Graham Day/Getty Images

Typically, only beetle larvae—and not fully developed—beetles are eaten by people. In Cameroon, women who harvest the palm weevil put their ears to the trunk of a palm tree in an attempt to listen for larvae. The women are listening for beetles in instar, the most delectable developmental phase for dining.

In addition to the palm weevil, several other species of beetle are eaten worldwide, including aquatic beetles, wood-boring larvae and dung beetles.

In the Netherlands, species of mealworm—specifically, the lesser mealworm, yellow mealworm and superworm—are used to feed reptiles and fish. People in the Netherlands are also encouraged to eat such insects because of their nutritional value, and in specialized shops, mealworm is also available as food for humans.

2
Caterpillars (Lepidoptera)

caterpillar
Cooked caterpillars. Cenwei.L Photograph/Getty Images

Although people from certain cultures do eat full-grown butterflies and moths, most people around the world who consume these critters eat them as larvae or caterpillars. For example in Mexico, maguey worms are prized by farmers and picked while caterpillars. These nutritive bugs are either braised or deep fried. They can also be seasoned with a spicy sauce and served in a tortilla. These caterpillars are also among the “worms” found in bottles of the alcoholic spirit mezcal.

The most popular caterpillar consumed worldwide is the mopane caterpillar, which is found in the mopane woodlands. The mopane woodlands is a huge swath of land which extends over South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana, Angola and more. It’s estimated that 9.5 billion caterpillars are harvested each year in Southern Africa thus reaping $85 million a year in sales.

3
Wasps, Bees and Ants (Hymenoptera)

ants
Fried ants. John Borthwick/Getty Images

Ants are pretty incredible animals and of incalculable benefit to humans. In addition to being considered a delicacy in many parts of the world, ants also engage in nutrient cycling and are a form of pest control for crops.

Larvae and pupae of the weaver ant are a popular food in Asia where they are called “ant eggs.” In Thailand, these ant eggs are sold in a can! Furthermore, the black weaver ant, which is found in subtropical areas of China, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka, is used as ​an ingredient in health foods and tonics, which are available in Chinese markets.

In Japan, the larvae of the yellow jacket, a type of wasp, is a delicacy and commodity, which, in addition to being harvested locally, needs to be imported from Vietnam and Australia to help meet demand.

Interestingly, despite being highly nutritive and rich in amino acids, energy, essential minerals and B vitamins, little is known about the potential of bees—mind you, not honey—as a food source. As nesting creatures, bees could easily be cultivated.

Along with wasps, bee eggs, larvae and pupae (collectively referred to as bee brood) are the most important insect food source in northern Thailand. In fact, in northern Thailand, bee brood is highly prized and particularly expensive at market.  

4
Grasshoppers, Locusts and Crickets (Orthoptera)

grasshoppers
Grilled grasshoppers. Valerie Parker / EyeEm/Getty Images

Chances are if you see a grasshopper, it’s edible. The large majority of the 80 grasshopper species found worldwide are edible. In the West African country of Niger, crickets are sold roadside as snacks. Furthermore in Mexico, the chapuline, which is the most popular edible cricket in Latin America, is cleaned and then toasted in lemon, garlic and salt for taste.

Locusts occur in swarms and are thus easy to catch. Because locusts are migratory, they are only a seasonal delight in Africa and the Middle East. Popular species of edible locust include the brown locust, the red locust and the desert locust. Because locusts are considered pests, they are often sprayed with organophosphate pesticides. Locusts contaminated with pesticides have been caught in Kuwait during harvesting.

Grasshoppers and locusts are collected in the early morning because they are cold-blooded and are immobile during the cold early-morning hours.

Crickets are hard to farm because they have long life cycles. Therefore, only two species of cricket are farmed commercially: Gryllus bimaculatus and Acheta domesticus. Curiously, Cambodians have developed a taste for these commercial crickets and prefer them to crickets caught in the wild because they claim farmed crickets taste better. Another interesting fact: In addition to being eaten, crickets in China are also kept as pets and bet on in cricket fights

5
Cicadas (Hemoptera)

cicadas
Lisu woman preparing cicadas. Anders Ryman/Getty Images

If you live in the northeastern United States, you may know about periodical cicadas. In spring, broods of these winged buzzers crawl out of the ground after spending about 17 years in the ground sucking up tree sap. Their diet, which is rich in plants, gives cicadas an asparagus-like flavor when eaten raw. Cicadas can also be boiled and deep fried as well as baked into quiche, pies, and cookies.

6
Pentatomid Bugs (Heteroptera)

pentatomid bugs
Pentatomid bugs. K.V.J.R.KOTESWARA RAO/Getty Images

Pentatomid bugs are commonly referred to as shield bugs or stink bugs. In sub-Saharan Africa, pentatomid bugs are eaten roasted, and oils from the bug are collected and used to prepare food.

Most species of pentatomid bug that are used as food are aquatic. In Mexico, for example, several species of aquatic pentatomid bug are used to make ahuahutle, or Mexican caviar. These aquatic pentatomid bugs are semi-cultivated by farmers. 

Sources

McGrew WC. The ‘Other Faunivory’ Revisited: Insectivory in Human and Non-Human Primates and the Evolution of Human Diet. Journal of Human Evolution. 71:4-11.

Van Huis A. Edible Insects Are the Future. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2016;75:294-305.

Van Huis A et al. Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security. Rome: FAO; 2013.

Yen AL. Entomophagy and Insect Conservation: Some Thoughts for Digestion. Journal of Insect Conservation. 2009;13:667-670.

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