A scientist I know who’s an expert on the mountain pine beetle likes to impress guests he takes out in the woods by scratching around the bark of a pine tree, picking out a pine beetle grub or two and noshing them down. He says they taste, well, like nothing, really — a bit pine-y because of what they feed on, vaguely reminiscent of retsina, and that’s about it.
I, on the other hand, have never much fancied eating bugs. Some kids I grew up with ate them on a dare or swallowed one accidentally. But, frankly, the thought of eating a wiggling ant put me right off. I could never picture biting into them while they were still alive to still those scrabbling legs and undulating abdomens.
But for some, eating a bug is not so difficult. My husband, Peter, recalls his dad coming home from work one day with a two-inch beetle covered in sugar crystals and sepulchered in a glass vial.
A workmate had given it to Nick to try. He ate them all the time and thought Nick might like to do same, reminding him not to eat the scratchy wings, which could catch in your throat. Instead, Nick sequestered the big beetle in his dresser drawer where Peter would occasionally marvel at it, in horror and fascination.
Quite likely it was a May bug, with its big brown elytra that protect the gauzy wings, a bug that can be 3 cm long, common in England and Europe, where they are easily caught due to their slow, clumsy flight and are reported to be delicious when roasted or sugar-coated.
I was reminded about all this eating of bugs (or not) when I came across a report from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization the other day. The FAO and the local university sponsored a workshop in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to explore forest insects as food sources.
This struck me as particularly appropriate. The last time I was in Chiang Mai I distinctly remember leaving one of the restaurants near the night market and spying a large round basket filled with deep-fried grasshoppers (locusts? cicadas?) prominently on display near the door where one might expect to find a dish of mints. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in northern Thailand insects are a huge food source.
I may well have eaten something unrecognizable but insect-like in that restaurant, as easy as it was to eat the unexpected in another place north of Chiang Mai. This was a small, family-run restaurant overlooking the Mekong River and Laos beyond.
My poor Thai and the waiter’s poor English convinced me to order a “chicken” dish. It turned out to be a platterful of very small baby birds, possibly extracted right from the shell, all nicely battered and deep-fried. They were meant to be eaten whole, which I did, crunching though the entire lot, skulls, beaks, feet and all, given I was so hungry.
Changing circumstances demand changing strategies. With the growing world population and climate change impacting traditional food supplies, the FAO and Chiang Mai University suggest that in light of the fact 1,400 species of insects are eaten by people, the bug world offers many commercial and nutritional opportunities.
It’s not hard to see how the concept might take hold, especially in areas already hit by climate change (read: drought), like sub-Saharan Africa.
Across Africa, the UN reports that some 500-plus insect species are consumed in 36 different countries. Insects are also eaten in 29 Asian countries and 23 countries in the Americas. If you ignore Canada and the U.S., that pretty much leaves people in most of Central and South America happily chomping away on insects as part of their diet.
Of the hundreds of species eaten, the most common come from four main groups: beetles; ants, bees and wasps; grasshoppers and crickets; and moths and butterflies.
In terms of nutrition, bug food is surprisingly rich (remember this next time you are lost in the woods and hungry). Some insects have as much protein as meat and fish; in dried form that protein ratio can double. Some, especially in the larval stage (which, along with pupae, is the most common form consumed) are also rich in fat, vitamins and minerals.
In some regions, they’re only eaten as “emergency food” in times of starvation. But where they are consumed regularly, they comprise a large part of the diet and are often considered delicacies. In Thailand alone, nearly 200 different insect species are eaten. Locals go nuts for them as snacks and treats homemade or sold by street vendors.
It’s a far cry from circling the shelves on the old Woodward’s food floor when we were kids until we found the round, clear plastic containers of chocolate-covered grasshoppers and ants. We’d read the labels in awe, poke at the silver foil-wrapped cubes, then put them back on the shelf with a collective eeugh.
Now that I think about it, the ratio of chocolate to ant must have been about a hundred to one. But other than perhaps as a party sensation or joke, nobody ever bought the things, and nobody ever will now that Woodward’s is gone, and a terrific sideshow for generations of western Canadian kids has ended.
If you missed out on the Woodward’s ants, you can still have some fun today. Try these recipes from Iowa State University. If you can’t wait for summer for your crickets or worms, do not fear. Grubco.com has a ready supply, as do most pet stores.
Banana Worm Bread
1/2 cup shortening
3/4 cup sugar
2 bananas, mashed
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped nuts
1/4 cup dry-roasted army worms
Mix together all ingredients. Bake in greased loaf pan at 350 degrees for about 1 hour.
Melt baker's chocolate in a double boiler. Fill molds halfway with chocolate, add candied crickets, fill rest of the way. A tasty surprise in every one!
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who’s
been convinced to try an insect next chance she gets.