Pick from the Past
Natural History, March-April 1921

Insects as Food

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


HEN 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.

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.” (Leviticus, XI: 2122)

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

To Diodorus Siculus, who lived in the time of Julius Caesar, is due the credit for first describing the “Acridophagi” or locust eaters of Ethiopia, who, he says, are smaller than other men, of lean and meager bodies and exceedingly black. According to his account the south winds rise high in the spring and drive out of the desert an infinite number of locusts of an extraordinary size, furnished with very dirty, unsightly wings (probably the common migratory locust, Pachytylus migratorius). These locusts furnish a plentiful food supply. From information kindly given me by Mr. Herbert Lang, leader of the American Museum Congo Expedition, I gather that in the northeastern corner of the Belgian Congo the Logo enjoy especially a grasshopper, apparently of the genus Homocoryphus.

Throughout practically the whole of Africa termites or “white ants” are such an important addition to the regular diet of the natives that most travelers in their accounts comment upon the fact. So anxious are the Azande and Mangbetu of the Uele district to secure these so-called ants that termite hills are considered by them private property, and during the harvest of the insects, fights, often resulting fatally, occur between rival claimants. From Mr. Lang I learned also of an ingenious automatic device by means of which the natives of certain regions he visited collect the winged, sexual forms of the white ants at the season of their marriage flight. They tightly enfold the termite mound in several layers of the broad leaves of a marantaceous wood reed, the interstices soon being closed with earth by the termites, which usually join the inner leaves to the nest. A projecting pocket, built on one side of the leaf cover, serves as a trap, for when the winged termites begin to swarm, they find no egress and finally drop in masses into the pocket from which they are scooped out by the watching negroes. In other instances the nests themselves are dug up to obtain the workers, soldiers, and huge, fat queens, which form a dainty titbit when broiled over the fire. At Banalia along the Aruwimi River in December, 1913, I was rather surprised to find, among many strange articles of food offered for sale by the natives at the weekly market, baskets of dried soldier termites.

Junker, one of the first white men to reach the Azande country, relates how Chief Ndoruma sought to win his favor by sending him twenty large baskets of termites, each load so heavy that it was all a porter could carry. In this instance the contents made such an excellent oil that a chicken cooked in it tasted as delicious as if fried in butter.

Notwithstanding the odor of the formic acid, true ants, too, are frequently collected and eaten by natives of various continents. According to Bingham, in Kanara and other parts of India, and throughout Burma and Siam, a paste of the green weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) is served as a condiment with curry. Beccari records that the Dayaks of Borneo mix this ant with their rice, to which it lends a pungent, acetic flavor. Concerning the same insect, Saville Kent, in his fascinating Naturalist in Australia has this to say: “Beauty, in the case of the Green Ant, is more than skin-deep. Their attractive, almost sweetmeat-like translucency possibly invited the first essays at their consumption by the human species.” Mashed up in water, after the manner of lemon squash, “these ants form a pleasant acid drink which is held in high favor by the natives of North Queensland, and is even appreciated by many European palates.”

The Mexican Indians and those of our Southwest make a practise of eating the replete workers, or living honey-pots, of the celebrated honey ant (Myrmecocystus) and regard them as a delicacy with which to honor their guests. In some cases the insects are pressed and the honey thus extracted enjoyed with meals, in others they are put aside to ferment into a highly flavored wine.

It is generally known that certain American Indians are at times myrmecophagous. John Muir, in his First Summer in the Sierra tells how the Digger Indians of California eat the tickly acid gasters of the large jet-black carpenter ants. The Mexican Indians and those of our Southwest make a practise of eating the replete workers, or living honey-pots, of the celebrated honey ant (Myrmecocystus) and regard them as a delicacy with which to honor their guests. In some cases the insects are pressed and the honey thus extracted enjoyed with meals, in others they are put aside to ferment into a highly flavored wine. Certain African tribes collect the huge queens of Carebara at the time of their nuptial flight, when these ants emerge in large numbers from the termitaria in which their nests are concealed. In this case the gasters only are eaten, either uncooked or roasted, and are considered a great delicacy. Many of the South American Indians treat in a like manner the queens of the leaf-cutting ants (Atta cephalotes and Atta sexdens).

Caterpillars are often appreciated as food in direct proportion to the ease with which large-sized species and those that occur in great numbers are collected. There appeared in the Journal of the New York Entomological Society for 1912 an interesting article by Mr. J. M. Aldrich regarding the use as food of the larvae of a saturnid moth (Colorado pandora) by certain Indians of the Nevada-California border. Quite recently the same entomologist has published further notes on this strange Indian food, describing, among other points, the manner in which the caterpillars are collected from their food plant, the Jeffrey pine. Richard Schomburgh records how the Indians in British Guiana actively gather for culinary purposes a caterpillar and its pupae which appear at the rainy season. Many African tribes, especially those of the forest country, consider these insects choice morsels. The Pangwe of southern Cameroon, according to Tessmann, eat no less than twenty-one different kinds. Not only do the natives distinguish by name a number of edible species, but they also know the particular food plants on which they are to be found. The caterpillars of the silkweaving Anaphe, a genus of notodontid moths of equatorial Africa that have the peculiar habit of congregating when full-grown, sometimes to the number of a dozen or more, to spin a common silk nest in which they make their cocoon and pupate, are eaten and their silky nests offered for sale.

In mentioning that the Anaphe larvae are relished by the natives of Gazaland, Swynnerton writes: “This is hardly of special interest in itself, for many other moth-larvae are also eaten by them, but what is perhaps of some slight interest is their alleged differential effect on particular individuals eating them. I was first informed of this by a native skinner and collector in my employ, whose statements I have in general found to be reliable; and he specially remarked that even brothers, eating from the same dish larvae that had been captured and prepared together, differed thus in their reaction: one brother suffering no ill effects whatever, the other being always completely prostrated for as much as two or three days in the more serious cases. The statement has been completely corroborated by such natives as I have since spoken to on the subject. All have further agreed in saying that the larvae are much liked, and that their inability to eat them is felt as a misfortune by those whom they affect unpleasantly.”

In addition to the nests of Anaphe, the Medje diligently collect in the proper season various other caterpillars. Those called ebbo are especially sought; dried and smoked they can be preserved for many months. The most common species collected by Mr. Lang is evidently the larva of a ceratocampid moth of the genus Micragone, agreeing almost exactly with the description and figure given by Packard for M. herilla. Heavy spines cover the body but are scraped off before cooking. Two other species of caterpillars in the same collection also belong to the Ceratocampidae. Another delicacy among the Medje is the grub of a curious psychid moth (Clania moddermanni) which lives in a tightly woven bag of its own making covered on the outside with stalks and reaching a length of two and one half inches and a diameter of three quarters of an inch.

According to Tessmann, the Pangwe even hunt for the aquatic larvae of dragon flies, to which they attribute diuretic properties. It is said that cicadas are a common article of food among the natives of Lower Siam, and the peculiar manner in which they are caught is in itself an interesting chapter as described by W. W. Skeat: “Two or three natives gather together at night round a brightly burning wood fire, one of them holding a lighted torch. The others clap their hands at regular intervals, and the Cicadae, attracted by the noise and guided by the light, fly down and settle upon the people as they stand by the fire.” In the region of Garamba, Belgian Congo, I am told, the natives not only eat the honey accumulated in the nests of wild bees, but even gather the larvae and pupae, which they roast over the fire before consuming. Moreover, the nests of certain social wasps are also sought for the same purpose.

It is impossible to mention here more than a few of the many insects used for culinary purposes, for members of nearly all orders enter into the diet of one people or another. A few words may be added, however, about the two-winged insects, which are seldom used, probably because in most cases they are difficult to gather in great quantities. Williston and Aldrich have called attention to the case of certain small flies of the genus Ephydra, the adults of which are found by the thousands along the shores of Mono Lake, California. In the latter part of the summer the puparia are washed up on the beach where they accumulate in heaps and can be collected by the bushel. In days gone by Indians came from far and near to gather them for food and a few still continue to do so. The worm are dried in the sun and the shell is rubbed off by hand. A yellowish kernel remains, very similar to a small grain of rice. This is oily, very nutritious, and under the name koo-chah-bee or koo-tsabe used to form a very important item of food. Its flavor is described as not altogether unpleasant and according to an informant: “If one were ignorant of its origin, it would make nice soup. It tastes more like patent 'meat biscuit' than anything else I can compare it with.” There are also a few instances recorded of the adult flies themselves having been eaten. A leptid fly of the genus Atherix at certain seasons appears in astonishing numbers along brooks in northeastern California. Trees, bushes, and rocks are covered with them to a depth of five or six inches. The Indians scrape them off and collect them in great heaps, cooking them between hot stones in an oven-like pit. The resulting reddish brown mass of about the consistency of headcheese, is made into loaves like bread, and can be counted on as a mainstay during the winter.

On some of the Central African lakes in the dry season a minute midge, one of the Chironomidae, rises from the water in clouds so dense that from a distance the effect is that of smoke. Near Lake Nyasa the midges are known as kungu and round out the larder of many of the shore tribes. When great hosts of them are driven landward by the wind, they are swept off the bushes and rocks by the natives or caught against mats hung up for the purpose; they are then compressed into oily cakes, roasted, and eaten. According to Koch, the Sesse Islanders collect and prepare in a similar manner the may flies which swarm in dense columns over Lake Victoria.

In spite of the weight of evidence from the historical point of view, it is not the purpose of the present article to furnish arguments regarding the value of insects as food or for including them in our own diet. What we eat and what we do not eat is, after all, more a matter of custom and fashion than anything else. Many years ago a learned French physician J. J. Virey, made an exhaustive study of the question “Whether man may eat insects and whether he should eat them,” with this conclusion: “Man may eat insects: nothing in his anatomical organization or his physiological functions is opposed to it. He should eat insects: in the first place, because his cousins the monkeys and his ancestors the bats, or to be brief the primates, eat them; in the second place, because insectivorous animals are superior to the other species of their order, as well in their more perfect organization as in the superiority of their intelligence.” Still, it must be admitted that this line of reasoning will have but slight appeal to the average white man. In my opinion the habitual consumption of insects may not be without danger. The greater number of them have such a heavy, indigestible skeleton of chitin that their continued use might well lead to dyspepsia. In addition, the small size of most of them makes it impossible to eliminate from their bodies all organs in which the waste products are accumulated, and which, because of their recognized poisonous properties, are as a rule carefully removed in the case of our meat and fish.

Be this as it may, those inclined toward reforming our food habits may be interested in a booklet published by Vincent M. Holt under the title Why not eat insects? They will find there an array of recipes for the preparation of various insects and also a number of menus for entomophagous dinners. If the time ever comes when insects are universally used as food, Mr. Holt's book will undoubtedly be greatly treasured by all gastronomes. Perhaps some day he may be regarded as one of the benefactors of humanity, for did not Brillat-Savarin write: “He who invents a new dish does more for the happiness of his fellowmen than all the philosophers, writers, scientist and politicians together.”

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