Insects as Food

How They Have Augmented the Food Supply of Mankind in Early and Recent Times

insects congo

Termitarium of Acanthotermes spiniger at Stanleyville, Belgian Congo, showing how the natives envelop the structure in broad leaves to prevent the escape of the winged individuals. The cap of leaves over the top of the nest, and the side pocket from which the termites are scooped out by the natives, were removed before the photograph was taken.

H. Lang

When the turmoil of the World War threatened to imperil the food resources of civilized nations, the question of “substitutes” became a serious one, and, among other suggestions, experiments were urged by the eminent entomologist, Dr. L. O. Howard, to ascertain the food value of insects. Favorable as the results may have proved, one can well imagine the storm of protest that would have resulted had the adoption of such a program by the general public been advocated. Yet to many it is surprising and can be attributed only to prejudice, that civilized man of today shows such a decided aversion to including any six-legged creatures in his diet.

The ancient Greeks, so circumspect in all that pertained to their personal welfare, rated as a great delicacy the grasshoppers which, as we learn from one of Aristophanes' comedies, were brought by the Boeotians to the market place at Athens. In another of his plays the same author jocosely remarks: “Are locusts superior in flavor to thrushes? Why! do you want to fool me? Everybody knows that locusts taste much better!” And his compatriot, Alexis, mentions the locust among the provisions of a poor Athenian family:

“For our best and daintiest cheer,
Through the bright half of the year,
Is but acorns, onions, peas,
Ochros, lupines, radishes,
Vetches, wild pears nine and ten,
With a locust now and then.”

The Cossus of the Greeks and Romans, so highly prized even at the tables of the rich, was the grub of a beetle living in the trunks of trees, perhaps that of the stag-beetle (Lucanus cervus). Pliny tells us that the epicures of his time considered these insects on a par with the daintiest meats and even fed them on meal in order to fatten them and heighten their flavor.

Both the Old and the New Testament contain a number of allusions to insects as food, and among eastern peoples it is still customary so to regard them. In Leviticus, XI: 21-22, Moses describes four kinds of locusts which the Hebrews were permitted to eat: “Yet then may ye eat of all winged creeping things that go upon all four, which have legs above their feet, to leap withal upon the earth; even these of them ye may eat; the locust after its kind, and the bald locust after its kind, and the cricket after its kind, and the grasshopper after its kind.” The locusts upon which St. John the Baptist (Mark, 1: 6) lived in the desert have been the subject of much discussion, some authors seeing in them the fruit of the carob tree, while others maintain they were true Orthoptera and to prove this refer to the practice of the Arabs in Syria at the present day. “Those who deny that insects were the food of this holy man,” says Hasselquist (Travels, p. 419) “urge that the locust is an unaccustomed and unnatural food; but they would soon be convinced to the contrary, if they would travel hither to Egypt, Arabia, or Syria, and take a meal with the Arabs. Roasted locusts are at this time eaten by the Arabs, in the proper season, when they can procure them; so that in all probability this dish was used in the time of St. John. Ancient customs are not here subject to many changes, and the victuals of St. John are not believed unnatural here; and I was assured by a judicious Greek priest that his Church had never taken the word in any other sense, and he even laughed at the idea of its being a bird or a plant.” In fact, locusts have been highly prized as food in the Orient from remotest antiquity, and Layard in his Discoveries among the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon figures a sculptured Assyrian slab on which, among the attendants carrying fruit, flowers, and game to a banquet, several appear bearing dried locusts fastened to rods.

Nowadays the use of insects as a diet is practically restricted to wild or half-civilized peoples, but even so they form an important item in the food supply of mankind. Although many of those considered edible are too scarce to furnish more than an occasional dainty morsel, or because of their rarity are reserved for some special purpose, other kinds are gathered in great quantities, dried, and preserved for a time as part of the staple food supply of the tribe.

A common beetle of the Orient, Blaps sulcata, is put up in a preparation which the women of Egypt, Turkey, and Arabia consume for the purpose of acquiring a degree of plumpness corresponding with their notion of beauty. The large, fleshy grubs of certain woodboring beetles—curculios, longicornes, and the like—are greedily sought by many native tribes of tropical regions. Thus we are informed some planters in the West Indies used to keep negroes whose sole duty it was to go into the woods in quest of the large larvae of Prionus damicornis, chiefly found in the plum and silk-cotton trees. These when opened, washed, and carefully broiled over a charcoal fire, were said to be tempting even to a jaded appetite. Aelian speaks of an Indian king who for dessert set before his Grecian guests, instead of the usual fruit, a roasted worm taken from a plant. This worm, he says, the Indians pronounced very delicious—a verdict confirmed by the privileged few who tasted it. In western Australia the decaying trunks of the grass tree house large colonies of a grub with a flavor very much like marrow, and these larvae, either uncooked or roasted, form a favorite dish of the aborigines.

It is, perhaps, among African negroes that insects are most extensively used a food—a practice undoubtedly due more to necessity than choice. Owing to peculiar climatic conditions and the ravages made by animal diseases, but few goats, sheep, and cattle are kept by the natives and these are too highly prized to enter very frequently into the diet, serving rather as signs of wealth; chickens and occasionally dogs are the only domestic animals freely eaten. The meat supply of the various tribes is, therefore, limited, necessarily consisting mainly of fish and game, the capture of which involves not a little trouble and is dependent on too many contingencies. To this scarcity is attributable the perpetual craving for animal food from which the black race has been suffering for centuries and which is undoubtedly to a large extent responsible for cannibalism. Although at least in the forest regions bananas, cassava, sweet potatoes, and corn offer a steady and regular sustenance obtained with comparatively little labor, in many other sections the soil is so poor or the drought so frequent and severe that the crops often fail. Considering that some of the most important products grown at present by the African blacks, such as cassava and corn, are of comparatively recent introduction, one cannot fail to see that formerly famine must have been a very frequent scourge. Is it strange, then, that the natives, facing starvation, tried to sustain life with whatever was handiest and so came to include insects in their regular diet?

From Doctor Livingstone comes the story that in the valley of the Quango River, Angola, the natives dig large, white larvae out of the damp soil adjacent to the streams, and use them as a relish with their vegetable food. In many regions of South Africa where the produce is barely sufficient for the few scattered inhabitants, flights of locusts are looked on as such a blessing that the medicine man sometimes promises to bring them, instead of rain, by his incantations. Doctor Sparrman relates that the Hottentots rejoice greatly at the arrival of the locusts, about whose origin they have a most curious notion. They ascribe them to the good will of a mighty spirit a great distance to the north, who, having removed the stone from the mouth of a certain deep pit, releases the locusts in order to furnish the tribe with food. The grateful natives collect and consume this provision so appreciatively that in the space of a few days they grow visibly fatter and appear in a much better state of health. It is the female insects principally that are eaten, especially just before their migratory flight, at a time when their wings are short and their bodies heavy and distended with eggs.

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