How can I tell if a bug is edible?

You may see a wasp, but entomophagists see pine nuts. See more pictures of insects.
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What if you were lost and alone in the wild? Imagine that you have no experience hunting and there's no river to fish. What if your only food source was crawling underfoot? That's right -- bugs. It may not be a gourmand's preference, but now isn't the time to get picky -- it's a matter of life or death. Maybe you should pull up that rotten log and chow down on some termites. That would be an excellent plan -- termites are loaded with protein and the second most eaten insect on Earth. Or perhaps dig for some worms --they have plenty of protein, and these squiggly fellows can be downed raw or cooked.

Whatever your pleasure, you have your choice from more than 1,400 edible insects to choose from. If you're from the United States, Europe or Canada, you may think that eating a bug is something reserved for bets, dares and reality TV shows. The rest of the world has a different perspective. All over Asia, Africa, Australia, Central and South America, people eat insects. It's called entomophagy, and it's been around for centuries. Insects have great nutritional value, are generally low in carbohydrates and fat and are easily raised and harvested -- for a fraction of the cost of livestock. You can read more about this in How Entomophagy Works.

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If you're traveling through Asia, you might find street vendors selling cricket skewers or roasted giant water bugs. Mexicans will offer up ant eggs or locusts -- and you can wash it down with a mezcal-soaked agave worm. In Africa, termites are on the menu. In South America, you might see tarantulas being smoked over fire. If you travel to these places and aren't afraid to try something different, you can eat all of these bugs without worry of getting sick or dying. But what if you're alone in a survival situation? Which bugs can you eat and which ones will make you sick? Is there a sure-fire way to tell?

We'll get to the bottom of this and look at the different varieties of edible insects on the next page.

You Might Be an Edible Insect If...

Stink bugs may have a foul odor, but they taste like apples.
Stink bugs may have a foul odor, but they taste like apples.
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Most insects are edible. Unfortunately, there isn't a dead giveaway to tell if a bug is edible unless you know what you're doing. However, there are some general guidelines you can use to help you decide. One rule of thumb that survival experts endorse is to steer clear of brightly colored insects. Like on amphibians, bright colors are usually an insect's way of saying, "Avoid me, please." You should heed their advice. Insects that are extremely pungent are also good to keep off your plate. Some wilderness experts will caution against hairy critters as well as bugs that bite or sting. Disease carriers like flies, ticks and mosquitoes are also on the no list.

But for every rule, there are exceptions. The tomato worm is bright green and perfectly safe to eat. Caterpillars are edible for the most part, but maybe you should stay away from the hairy, colorful ones. Tarantulas are hairy too, but are roasted and eaten in some countries. Black ants are edible, but their fiery cousins aren't. Stinging bugs like bees and wasps are edible and known for being quite tasty. The same can be said for scorpions. People eat venomous snakes, so why not? There are even varieties of flies and mosquitoes that you can eat.

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All in all, there are 15 orders of edible insects:

  • Anoplura - lice
  • Orthoptera - grasshoppers, crickets and cockroaches
  • Hemiptera - true bugs
  • Homoptera - cicadas and treehoppers
  • Hymenoptera - bees, ants and wasps
  • Diptera - flies and mosquitoes
  • Coleoptera - beetles
  • Lepidoptera - butterflies and moths
  • Megaloptera - alderflies and dobsonflies
  • Odonata - dragonflies and damselflies
  • Ephemetoptera - mayflies
  • Trichoptera - caddisflies
  • Plecoptera - stoneflies
  • Neuroptera - lacewings and antlions
  • Isoptera - termites

The trick to eating any insect is to cook it. Even if a bug has harmful toxins or venom, a good boiling will usually negate the effect. Insects with hard shells like beetles can contain parasites, but if cooked are safe to eat. Even if you're in a survival situation, you should be able to get a fire going. This means you can boil, roast or smoke the insects you eat. Aside from making them safe to ingest, cooking them also improves the taste. Ants, for example, have a distinct vinegar taste until they're boiled. Another way to improve your dining experience is by removing the wings and legs from your meal. They don't contain much nutritional value anyway. You can also remove the head.

Many times the insects themselves are edible, but what they've been eating isn't. It takes a little while for insects to digest, so if they recently ate some leafy greens that were sprayed with pesticide, those chemicals are now inside their body. Locusts that have been doused with insecticide often have saliva at the corners of their mouths. Cook these insects or purge them by feeding them fresh greens -- 24 hours should do it. You should also stick to live insects because you can never be sure what killed the dead ones. You can take care of the killing part yourself by cooking or freezing them.

So if you're in a survival situation, play it safe. There are plenty of worms, grubs, termites, crickets and beetles in any wilderness area. Stick with these and you'll be fine.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • "A Beetle A Day." thaibugs.com, July 6, 1999. http://www.thaibugs.com/Articles/beetleaday.htm
  • "All About Edible Insects." eatbug.com, 2008. http://www.eatbug.com/
  • "How to use insects as food." The Essence of Aquaponics, October 15, 2002. http://rainbow.konto.itv.se/mailgroup/f408.htm
  • "Poisonous and Dangerous Foods." The Survival Expert, 2008. http://www.thesurvivalexpert.co.uk/PoisonousDangerousFoods.html
  • Menzel, Peter and D'Aluisio, Faith. "Bugs You Can Eat." pbs.com, 2008. http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/2000/2160.html
  • Ramos-Eloduy, Julieta. "Creepy Crawly Cuisine: The Gourmet Guide to Edible Insects." Inner Traditions/Bear & Co., 2008.