I have written before of insects in the Ituri Forest. (Oh, and here too.) When it comes up that I’ve spent time there, certain questions often come up, and one of them is: “Did you eat bugs.”

Every one has seen those National Geographic specials where some natives somewhere are eating insects, and of course, Westerners who think they generally don’t eat insects are fascinated with the idea. Of course, Westerners eat a lot more insects than they think. You should really consider any processed food you eat that started out as a plant crop to be part insect. If what you are eating is made of any corn product, rice, wheat, etc. or pretty much anything else, consider how the foodstuff got from field to factory to face. At no point did someone sit down and do what you do with the veggies you buy at the grocery store: Sit down and clean them off and if you run into a bug, get rid of it. And, even when you do that to your own produce, you are not seeing some of the invertebrates that are just too small and too well hidden to see.

We had a situation like that arise in the Ituri Forest one year. Our practice was to grow some food, and occasionally purchase food from a local market when one existed, but to mostly stay away from the food the local people grew, because we didn’t want to be draining away their resources. So, we would go to town every several weeks and purchase a number of long-term staples, including 20 kilo sacks of rice, beans, or other dry foods, a few gallons of palm oil, and to splurge, twenty boxes of pasta and dozens of tiny little cans of tomato paste which we would turn into feeble Italian food.

Once you brought that food back there was no changing plans. If something bad happened to the sack of rice, there would be no rice for six weeks. We kept the food in a special food storage hut, and our cook, a locally hired woman who worked a few hours a day for us, would take very good care of it. All sorts of things can go wrong from leaks in the roof to vermin to mold or rot. If something bad happened to the sack of rice, there would be no rice for six weeks.

And one day something went wrong with the beans.

At first we noticed little black spots floating around in the cooked beans. A little later we noticed that among the beans, while cleaning them there were these little tiny things that would fly away. Then we noticed that some of the beans had little holes bored into them. Eventually, we put two and two together and figured out that we had some sort of infestation. Some small beetle creature had taken up residence in our beans. The or their larva would bore a hole into a bean and live there for a while, presumably eating each bean from the inside out. I’m pretty sure both the larvae and adults were doing the boring, but I can’t be sure. The way we handled this was to spread the beans out on something, in the sun, for a while and a bunch of the beetles would fly away. Then we’d wash off the beans as per usual and some of the beetles left behind, beetle corpses (of which there was an increasingly large amount) and grubs would be washed away. But as each day passed, the number of beetles that would end up in the coked beans went up and up and up, and the efficacy of getting rid of the beetles was obviated by their ubiquity. So we stopped laying the beans out in the sun. At that point we stopped eating “cooked beans” and started eating “cooked beetles and beans” or, for short “B&B”.

And eventually we discovered that this was not all that uncommon. If you want beans in that habitat, you’re gonna get beetles too. Its just that this particular batch of Beans and Beetles was farther along than usual. Eventually we had to speed up the rate at which we consumed the beans so that there would be some left for us to eat! And, as I recall, the next batch of beans had hardly any beetles in it.

Well, I’m sorry to report that you do that every day when you eat stuff made out of pretty much any plant, but probably to a lesser degree. When products are made in factories in the US, some sort of test is applied to the powder or juice or whatever the corn or beans or wheat is turned into, to see how much invertebrate (mainly insect) matter is in there. I assume that batches with “too much” are mixed with batches of “not much” to make batches of corn meal, or wheat flour that have under the regulated maximum amount of insect matter. I’m just guessing at that, of course. One of you must know…

In any event, there is nothing wrong with eating most insects, especially those that eat the foods we eat. Chances are they are low in toxins, and they are loaded with amino acids and other protein related molecules! Here as well as the Ituri, people eat insects all the time in this manner.

But of course, that is not what people are really asking me. They want to know if I’ve ever eaten insects as part of the cuisine.

Yes, of course I have, but I see I’ve run out of time. I’ll get back to you on that shortly.

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Comments

  1. #1 itzac
    August 19, 2011

    I, for one, would love to see insects become a larger part of the western diet.

  2. #2 Garnetstar
    August 19, 2011

    The Chinese at times have eaten fried grasshoppers, apparently they are quite nutritious and rather tasty.

    I read about virus-hunting expeditions in Africa in which the Western scientists ate raw, live termites. Said they had a nutty flavor. The termite queen was especially prized by them, because she had so much delicious “creamy insect fat”.

    I admit that that one really put me off.

  3. #3 Monado, FCD
    August 19, 2011

    I remember once when we picked some beautiful Swiss chard from the family gatden. Chard has a big, plume-like leaf and makes a green, leafy vegetable that is mildly sweet. It’s a variety of beet grown for the leaves. As we started to wash them, we noticed that the undersides of the leaves were covered with herds of tiny green aphids. They didn’t want to let go. It was impossible to get rid of all of them, so in the end we settled for crushing most of them and rinsing off the leaves with running water. I’m sure that some pin-head sized insects remained.

    The chard was delicious and we didn’t notice the insect parts. The insects were delicate, translucent, and clean, living on sap and excreting honeydew. They were surely safer to eat than clams or shrimps.

  4. #4 Monado, FCD
    August 19, 2011

    It’s impossible to get rid of all the bugs. Foods such as soup have standards, e.g. “no more than four insect parts per can” (or was that per c.c.?) but even those would be hard to enforce.

    I’ve discovered that our supermarket beans have bugs, too. But if I toss dried foods into the freezer overnight before storing them, the bugs don’t hatch and I can keep the food without it teeming with insects.

  5. #5 NancyNew
    August 19, 2011

    My children bought me a copy of this book, years ago (reprint edition), and it’s interesting reading on the subject…
    http://bugsandbeasts.com/whynoteatinsects/

  6. #6 Tsu Dho Nimh
    August 19, 2011

    Monado – To get rid of the aphids, put a couple of drops of dishwashing detergent in a basin of water and wash the leaves. The bugs will almost all turn loose of the leaves and you can rinse them off along with the soap.

  7. #7 TheBrummell
    August 19, 2011

    Eating insects is basically harmless, there’s only a few species out there that contain significant amounts of toxic compounds, and those insects tend not to be agricultural pests as they get many of their toxins from the plants they eat – toxic bugs live on toxic plants, edible bugs live on edible plants, for the most part.

    But, while animal metabolisms are generally happy to re-use such compounds, fungal metabolisms are all about making novel compounds. I suppose if the infestation of your beans had been mold rather than beetles, you would have dumped the beans in the nearest fire immediately? Do the Efe (or other groups you have lived with & studied) have a set of practices relating to avoiding deadly fungus? Did you ever eat cheese in front of them, to their confusion and/or disgust?

  8. #8 Lou Jost
    August 19, 2011

    In the US, I considered aphid-tending ants a real delicacy. They were sweet and delicious. I used to eat them live when I was little, and on through college. (Now I live in a place where there aren’t any, else I’d still be eating them.) I served them (live) to my lab-mates once. To their credit, they tried them and liked them.

  9. #9 Charles Sullivan
    August 19, 2011

    As a poor college student I recall buying a 2 kilo burlap bag of basmati rice, which was kind of spendy but it was one of the few foods I splurged on. Anyway, some moths discovered the rice, and soon there were dead moths and live moth larvae in the rice.

    I continued to eat it, but I just rinsed it off the best I could before cooking. I figured the hell if any moths were going to make me toss out that expensive bag of basmati rice. Needless to say, it was delicious.

  10. #10 Jim Thomerson
    August 19, 2011

    In Peru, for breakfast, we had “Quaker”; thin oatmeal with meal worms in it. Not bad. We also had Nescafe brand instant coffee, which I wasn’t too pleased with.

  11. #11 travc
    August 19, 2011

    Greg,
    Did you ever mention these sorts of observations with the Efe? I’m curious if they would find it amusing that many westerners are horrified by the idea of eating bug-infested food, but unknowingly do it all the time since they are normally disconnected from the growing and processing.

  12. #12 daedalus2u
    August 20, 2011

    Freezing is an excellent way of stopping an infestation. It is the actual freezing that kills them, several cycles are better than one cycle.

    A technique they use in flour mills is heat. No insect can survive ~140 F. Humans can survive that if the RH is low enough. Lots of equiipment can take that if it is not operating. What they do is seal up the flour mill, crank the heat up, and monitor temperatures all over. If it gets high enough for long enough, then every insect is dead.

    Another technique for preventing infestation of stored grain with insects is to mix a little bit of ash with it. Typically they used ash from burned dung. The ash is alkaline, alkali carbonates or free lime from calcium carbonate being calcined. When the insects try to move from one grain to the other they can’t tolerate the alkalinity of the ash they come in contact with. After storage you can wash it off, or even eat it since it is a small quantity relative to the bulk.

  13. #13 Fuzzbutt
    August 20, 2011

    I’ve always found it funny how some invertebrates are delicacies and others are vile.

    I won’t eat something once it has a bad infestation. Pasta that’s been pre-chewed for me by some larva or other just isn’t appealing. When I buy a bag of rice it seems more often than not it has little insects that I call “bread lice” for their vague resemblance to head lice. When I see one in the bag, I’ll just spread the rice on a tray and pick them out, then put the rice I’m not ready to use back in the bag. You have to rinse it anyway…

  14. #14 elle
    August 21, 2011

    i’m pretty excited about the scorpions down at the local market here near Muping, Shandong Province, China. I’ll let you know…

  15. #15 KeithB
    August 22, 2011

    “The lesser of two weevils”, anyone? Sailors ate a lot of insects back in the day before walk-in freezers.

  16. #16 Uncle Glenny
    August 22, 2011

    As a poor college student I recall buying a 2 kilo burlap bag of basmati rice, …

    At one point in my life I used to buy some fancy scented rice in 20 pound quantities quite regularly. It frequently came just slightly infested, but with time of course got worse and worse. The solution was to immediately transfer it to sealed jars immediately after purchase, so the uninfested portions remained so.

  17. #17 Urban Interest
    September 16, 2011

    Thank you for all the tips of getting rid of the bugs :) I try to get rid of them for a while and it doesn’t work :(

  18. #18 Atomfullerene
    April 20, 2012

    Those sound like mung beetles. We use them in experiments in the intro bio lab I TA. They definitely dig holes in beans

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