Insects as Food

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

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.”

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.”