Munching on bugs


A recent report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations mentions that there are 1,900 species of edible insects inhabiting the Earth, and is urging people, including North Americans, to consume such bugs. Although overcoming the “yuck” factor, traditionally associated with insects by people living on this continent, may be somewhat difficult to overcome. 
Insect farming should be the next big enterprise, according to the UN. Its 187-page report covers everything from attitudes towards eating insects, tips on farming methods and using insects as emergency rations.
“Land is scarce and expanding the area devoted to farming is rarely a viable or sustainable option,” explained the report. “Oceans are overfished and climate change and related water shortages could have profound implications for food production. To meet the food and nutritional challenges of today — there are nearly one billion chronically hungry people worldwide — and tomorrow, what we eat and how we produce it needs to be re-evaluated ...”
Raising and harvesting insects requires significantly less land than raising cattle, pigs and sheep (National Geographic Magazine), and “insects convert food into protein much more efficiently than livestock do — meaning they need less food to produce more product.”
“Edible insects have always been part of human diets, but in some societies there is a degree of distaste for their consumption,” noted the UN report.
Among the edible insects varieties mentioned in the UN report are locusts — commonly consumed in other regions of the world — a species no longer found in North America, but once the most abundant insect on the continent. At one time, Rocky Mountain locusts were the most numerous swarming insect species on the planet. In 1875, the species formed the largest locust swarm in recorded history at 2,900 kilometres long and 180 kilometres wide. One estimate placed the number of insects making up the swarm at 3.4 trillion.
Newspapers reported in 1875 that the insects were so numerous that the locusts munched through whole fields of crops, leaving the land bare between Winnipeg and Portage la Prairie. In the southeastern portion of the province, the insects ate everything in their path in the Mennonite settlements.
With so many insects and little that could be done to stop the plague, entomologists of the day began to promote eating the destructive insects. James McKay at Deer Lodge (now a neighbourhood in Winnipeg), was already collecting the locusts by the bushel, boiling them and feeding them to his hogs, which were said to have grown fat on the insect fare. Despite the obvious nutritional value shown through consumption by livestock, few were prepared to take the next step and add locusts to their stew pot. But some did try to determine the best recipes for preparing locusts.
The Manitoba Free Press on October 15, 1875, related an amusing story, originally published in the Boulder, Colorado, News, about a dinner for five held in Warrensburg, Montana. The participants in the experimental dinner, including Missouri entomologist C.V. Riley and a local reporter, indulged in dishes made from locusts. The reporter said locust soup tasted “like chicken soup,” and with seasoning added, a “delicate mushroom favour” was detected. “The soup had banished prejudices and sharpened our appetites” for the next course of batter-cakes, well mixed with locusts, “which quickly disappeared.
“Baked locusts were then tried (plain ’hoppers without grease or condiments) and either with or without accompaniments it was pronounced an excellent dish.
“The meal was closed with dessert à la John the Baptiste — baked locusts and honey — and, if we know anything, we can testify that distinguished Scripture character must have thrived on his rude diet in the wilderness of Judea.”
“I found the chitinous covering and the corneous parts — especially the spines of the tibia — dry and chippy, and somewhat irritating to the throat,” commented Riley after another bout of locust culinary experimentation. “This objection would not apply, with the same force, to the mature individuals, especially of larger species, where the heads, legs,and wings are carefully separated before cooking. In fact, some of the mature insects prepared in this way, then boiled and afterward stewed with a few vegetables, and a little butter, pepper, salt and vinegar, made an excellent fricassee.”
But it was a practice that never caught on among North American pioneers, whose cultural aversion to insects could not be overcome, regardless of how often locusts were described by entomologists as being especially tasty in a soup. Settlers only associated locusts with the Plagues of Egypt, described so ominously in the Bible, and not as appetizing fare at the dinner table.
In the end, Rocky Mountain locusts were just a temporary dish, as they vanished from the continent. The course of settlement and plowing up land and their eggs led to the only extinction of an insect species by mankind in the 11,000-year-old history of agriculture on the planet. The last known two specimens of the Rocky Mountain locust were collected in 1902 in Manitoba by local and internationally-renowned entomologist, Norman Criddle.
According to the UN report, other commonly consumed insects still found in North America and around the world are beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, crickets, leafhoppers, planthoppers, scale insects, termites, dragonflies and even flies.
Arnold van Huis, who helped write a Dutch insect recipe book, said in the Guardian that it is “nonsense” and a “misconception” that “insects are for primitive, stupid people,” claiming that Westerners don’t know what they’re missing by failing to put bugs on the menu.
He said that dragonflies boiled in coconut milk and ginger are a delicacy in Indonesia, beekeepers in China are considered virile because they eat larvae from their hives, and tarantulas are consumed in Cambodia.
He said Europeans had once considered insects a delicacy. Pliny the Elder, a Roman scholar, wrote that aristocrats “loved to eat beetle larvae reared in flour and wine. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, described harvesting cicadas: “The larva on attaining full size becomes a nymph; then it tastes best, before the husk is broken. At first the males are best to eat, but after copulation the females, which are then full of white eggs.”
Anyone have a good recipe for fishflies (mayflies)? These insects swarm in massive clouds over the lake region of Manitoba each summer. Although they’re a bit stinky when they begin to decay — hence their name — I’m sure they’re packed with vitamins and protein.