Sunday, June 3, 2007

12. Insect based food

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[Insects in a Beijing (China) market in 2004.]

"There are millions of insect species known worldwide. Only 1500 or so are reported edible."

Edible Insects

Insects have played an important part in the history of human nutrition in Africa, Australia, Asia and the Americas. Hundreds of species have been used as human food. Some of the more important groups include grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetle grubs and (sometimes) adults, winged termites (some of which are very large in the tropics), bee, wasp and ant brood (larvae and pupae) as well as winged ants, cicadas, and a variety of aquatic insects.

Ordinarily, insects are not used as emergency food to ward off starvation, but are included as a normal part of the diet throughout the year or when seasonally available.

In Europe the use of insects of foods has always been very limited. Although frequently mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman literature, there are only very few reports on the use of insects as food in later centuries. Only in times of starvation, insects were eaten. The main reason for the difference between Europe and the other continents is that insects are not so abundant and generally much smaller compared to tropical regions.

Recently the use of insects as food has declined in many tropical regions, partly to increased availability of ‘better' foods. This often includes meat and more Western styles of dishes [which is causing huge changes in health in populations unused to eating this European food in Asia; see this book for examples of why:

Why Some Like It Hot: Food, Genes, and Cultural Diversity by Gary Paul Nabhan (2006)


As insects are a very good source of nutrients, the question remains whether insects are not actually the better food.

In Africa insects are traded on a large scale and several industries produce canned insects and insect dishes.

On the other hand, in the US and to a lesser extend in Europe, eating insects has increased. However, not as a regular food, but more as a curiosity.

Insects are for example covered in chocolate or offered as sugared candies.

Tequila flavoured candy with worm (source)

Chocolate covered ant candies (source)

Most religions accept insects as normal food and place no restrictions or taboos on consumption of insects. Jewish traditions consider only a few types of insects as kosher. However, in practice, Jews avoid eating insects deliberately, as only trained entomologists may be able to distinguish between kosher and non-kosher insects.

In Muslim regions the use of insects is very restricted. Only grasshoppers are considered halal (allowed to eat), when died a naturally death or killed lawfully. Practically all other insects are considered haram. However, in countries such as India, Indonesia and Malaysia, many different insects are eaten traditionally, even in nominal Islamic regions. In Arab countries only grasshoppers can be found on markets.

As over 1500 different species of insects have been reported as being consumed or edible, this is a too long list to describe in detail. The following pages give some more information on the use of insects as food:

* Classes of edible insects
* Regions and countries
* List of reported species
* Some nutritional data

Classes of edible insects

There are millions of insect species known worldwide. Only 1500 or so are reported edible.

Insects are subdivided in many different orders, groups, genera and species. Below some groups of insects and their use as food are described.

Butterflies and moths (Order Lepidoptera).

The larvae (caterpillars) of many species of moths (and a few species of butterflies) are used as food. They are a particularly important source of nutrition (protein, fat, vitamins and minerals) in Africa. In one country alone, Congo (formerly Zaire), more than 30 species are harvested. Some caterpillars are sold not only in the local village markets, but are shipped on a large scale from one country to another. Caterpillars are canned in Botswana and South Africa. In the rural countryside, they are usually dried in the sun before being sold in the market.

Adult moths and butterflies are not eaten – their wings and bodies are clothed with the small flat scales and hairs that make them so colourful.

A colony of Imbrasia ertli on the base of a Funtumia tree (Congo). The caterpillar descend from the foliage of the tree each time they moult. It is at this stage they are collected for eating. Normally the whole colony is taken and can either be eaten after roasting or boiling or else can be sun dried for later use. (Source)

True bugs (Order Hemiptera).

Most of the insects in this order that are used as food live in water. The famous “Mexican caviar,” or ahuahutle, is composed of the eggs of several species of aquatic Hemiptera; these have formed the basis for aquatic “farming” in Mexico for centuries. One species in Asia, the “giant water bug,” is now exported from Thailand to Asian food shops all over the world.

Thai Giant Water Bug (Lethocerus indicus ), eaten steamed, also ground into a paste with chilli and eaten with sticky rice (Source)

Cicadas (Order Homoptera).

This order includes many insects, such as aphids and leafhoppers, which are important agricultural pests, but only the cicadas are used widely as human food. The nymphs of some species, known as “periodical cicadas,” spend up to 17 years underground where they feed on roots. After 17 years they emerge from the soil, climb up a tree trunk or fence post and molt to the adult stage. Periodical cicadas occur as “broods” which appear above ground only once every several years in any one locality. When they do appear, however, it is often in vast numbers. That is when they are collected as food, sometimes even by school children in the United States. They can be fried. Many cicadas have shorter life cycles, and some of them were collected as food by Indian tribes in what is now the western United States. They are eaten regularly in many other countries, especially in Asia, and some are very large. A cicada from Malaysia even has a wing span of nearly 18 cm!

Brood X, one of the North American periodical cicadas (Magicicada sp.). (Source)

Termites (Order Isoptera).

Termites are most widely used as food in Africa. They are social insects with colonies divided into “castes” that include workers, soldiers, winged adults and a queen. The queen becomes very large and she lays thousands of eggs. Colonies of some species build huge earthen mounds, called termitaria, which may be up to 20 feet high. Periodically, the winged adults emerge in huge swarms, mate while in flight, and then start new colonies. They are highly attracted to lights, even candlelight, and that is one way they are captured for use as food. The wings are broken off, and, fried, termites are delicious. The queens are considered a special treat and are often reserved for children or grandparents.

Termites. (Source)

Bees, ants and wasps (Order Hymenoptera).

With bees and wasps, it is usually the bee or wasp “brood” (larvae/pupae) that is eaten. Most adult bees and wasps don't taste good, but there are exceptions. Canned wasps, wings and all, are sold in Japan, and rice cooked with these wasps was a favourite dish of the late Emperor Hirohito. With ants, it is also the larvae and/or pupae that are usually eaten, but not always. Roasted leafcutter ant abdomens are sold, instead of popcorn, in movie theaters in some places In South America. In some cultures, bee nests are collected as much for their bee grubs as for the honey. In Mexico, certain kinds of ant pupae, known as escamoles, are found on the menu in the finest restaurants. They are served fried with butter, or fried with onions and garlic.

Beetles (Order Coleoptera).

Beetles have complete metamorphosis. Larvae, pupae and/or adults of many species are used as food. Obviously, people do not eat adult beetles whole; the hard parts (wings, legs and head) are removed during preparation for cooking. The larvae (sometimes called “grubs”) are soft-bodied.

Australian tyape arlkerlatye grubs (Source)

Grasshoppers, crickets, etc. (Order Orthoptera).

Grasshoppers and crickets and their relatives have played an important role in the history of human nutrition. Roasting and sautéing are frequently used methods of cooking, after first removing the wings and legs. Seasonings such as onion, garlic, cayenne, chili peppers or soy sauce may be added. Candied grasshoppers, known as inago, are a favourite cocktail snack in Japan .

The inago grashopper (Oxya japonica) (Source)

Spiders and scorpions (Class Arachnida)

Spiders and scorpions are two different orders within the class Arachnida (spider-like organisms), the Aranae (spiders) and the Scorpiones (scorpions). Only a few of the over 40.000 species in this class are eaten.

Scorpions are eaten in the south of China and neighbouring countries. They are reared in ‘ranches', mostly in people's homes, then sold in the markets. Scorpions have a woody taste and should be eaten whole, except for the tip of the tail.

Spiders are also mainly eaten in South-East Asia. In Cambodia large, tarantula like, spiders are still commonly eaten in the North of the country.

Scorpion soup. (Source)

Walking sticks and leaf insects (Order Phasmatodea).

These grotesquely shaped insects are used as food in a few places in Asia and in Papua New Guinea.

The edible Extatosoma tiaratum from Papua New Guinea. (Source)

Adopted from :


New, the online book:

"The Human Use of Insects as a Food Resource: A Bibliographic Account in Progress"

Table of Contents and Preface

Chapters 2-28 now online. Please read the Preface to find out how all of this is supposed to unfold.

About the book, and Table of Contents

The Human Use of Insects as a Food Resource: A Bibliographic Account in Progress

Gene R. De Foliart
Professor Emeritus
Department of Entomology
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Table of Contents*


Part I. Introduction, The Western Hemisphere and Europe

Chapter 1. Introduction (not yet written)
Chapter 2. Insect Foods of North American Indigenous Populations North of Mexico (pp. 1-95)
Chapter 3. The Use of Insects as Food in Mexico (pp. 1-49)
Chapter 4. Central America and Caribbean Islands (pp. 1-11)
Chapter 5. South America: Overview (pp. 1-10)
Chapter 6. South America: Brazil (pp. 1-20)
Chapter 7. South America: Colombia (pp. 1-15)
Chapter 8. Other Countries in South America (pp. 1-23)
Chapter 9. Western Attitudes Toward Insects as Food: Europe, The United States, Canada (pp. 1-40)
Chapter 10. Western Research on Insects as Food and Animal Feedstuffs (pp. 1-30)

Part II. Africa

Chapter 11. Southern Africa: Overview (pp. 1-10)
Chapter 12. Republic of South Africa (pp. 1-22)
Chapter 13. Southern Africa: Zimbabwe (pp. 1-17)
Chapter 14. Other Countries in Southern Africa (pp. 1-16)
Chapter 15. Central and Eastern Africa: Overview (pp. 1-14)
Chapter 16. Central and Eastern Africa: Congo (Kinshasa) (Formerly Zaire) (pp. 1-35)
Chapter 17. Central and Eastern Africa: Zambia (pp. 1-19)
Chapter 18. Central and Eastern Africa: Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda (pp. 1-17)
Chapter 19. Central and Eastern Africa: Angola, Congo (Brazzaville), Others (pp. 1-22)
Chapter 20. Northern and Western Africa (pp. 1-30)

Part III. Asia, Oceania

Chapter 21. Southwestern Asia (pp. 1-23)
Chapter 22. South-Central Asia (pp. 1-23)
Chapter 23. Southeastern Asia: Overview [incomplete]
Chapter 24. Southeastern Asia: Thailand (pp. 1-35)
Chapter 25. Other Countries in Southeastern Asia (pp. 1-28)
Chapter 26. Eastern Asia (pp. 1-36)
Chapter 27. Oceania: Overview, Papua New Guinea, Others (pp. 1-20)
Chapter 28. Oceania: Australia (pp. 1-51)

Appendix Chapter 1. General Bionomics: Insect Orders and Families With Complete Metamorphosis

Appendix Chapter 2. General Bionomics: Orders and Families With Incomplete Metamorphosis

Appendix Chapter 3. Potential Hazards with Ingestion of Insects

* Chapters for which page numbers are shown are those so far posted.


Compilation of the papers found here began in 1975 when the author started preparation of a technical paper on a subject he knew nothing about.

It was to be delivered on the University of Wisconsin campus as part of what organizers were calling "A Workshop on Unconventional Sources of Protein." More details about the workshop will be available later in a book I am preparing, titled, "Insects as a Global Food Resource: The History of Talking About it at the University of Wisconsin."

During the ensuing 27 years (approximately) pertinent references were gathered in fitful spurts, some in connection with research projects but others simply because they pertained to the broader subject of insects as food. From early on, it seemed that the subject warranted a book-length updating of F.S. Bodenheimer's classic Insects as Human Food published in 1951.

Although the goal continued to be eventual publication of a book, the growing assemblage of papers had many immediate uses. It was a resource file not only for research but for a growing outreach effort that included founding The Food Insects Newsletter, introduction of a 1-credit course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, creation of a traveling exhibit for elementary and middle school students, and responding to increasingly frequent invitations to write review articles or to speak on the subject locally or at meetings of professional organizations in this country and abroad.

Mentioning all this activity, you may have guessed, is an attempt, a weak attempt, perhaps, to explain how easily one can let year after year slip away without completing a particular major goal – like finishing this book.

In 1997 though, my wife, Louise, or "Lou," who was adept on computers, helped me launch an intensive electronic literature search through the University of Wisconsin libraries aimed at pulling in copies of many articles that I had not seen previously. Lou's sudden death, from cardiac arrhythmia, in February 1998 brought this particular stretch of productivity on the book to an abrupt end. After dealing with a variety of new distractions, like learning how to survive on my own cooking (which became possible, actually, by handouts from friends), I again turned attention to what had by now become THE BOOK, a monstrous piece of unfinished business. Getting it out suddenly seemed a matter of greatest urgency, and I resumed work on it early in 2002. One main concern was that all the effort made to obtain and translate numerous French and Spanish language works on the subject not be wasted by continued delay.

By this time I had decided to publish the book on the Internet, for two reasons. One, I was thoroughly disgusted with the high price of science books; two, rather than waiting until all the final details were cleared up (which always takes longer than one expects), I could start posting a few chapters at a time, as they become ready. This more informal approach seemed the best way to ensure that the book might actually become useful to somebody, some time, somewhere. For example, I haven't written Chapter 1, the Introduction, yet. Have you ever seen a book with no Chapter 1? Of course not. Until now. But, with our informal Internet approach, we don't have to hold up 27 other chapters simply because we lack a Chapter 1. It's one of the nice things about the electronic age; we can add an Introduction later, when we get around to it.

In deciding to go with what we have, warts and all, I have tried to provide for future expansion. The title hints at that, ". . . in Progress." Chapters are numbered independently, each chapter beginning with page 1. Tables are listed for most chapters, but, for now, readers will need to consult the original sources if they wish to see the tabular data (table numbers in the original sources are given). Eventually I hope to find time to seek permission from publishers to include the tabular data here. At the end of the References Cited in most chapters, there are additional references under the heading, "Added References." These are references pertinent to the chapter but not cited; it is my hope that soon after we get all existing text online we can start adding abstracts below these titles, and also start adding additional titles. Also, it is my intention, at that time, to invite readers to submit pertinent references of which they are aware but that are not yet listed, and, if possible, to furnish copies (the hills are getting steeper on the UW campus and I no longer have a stable full of young people eager to do legwork to the libraries). We may also be soliciting volunteers willing to translate papers from languages other than English. By then, we might even be soliciting for pertinent photographs, as long as accompanied by adequate data. When the time comes, potential donors should inquire first, before sending material of any kind, in order to avoid duplications. Such inputs from others will be acknowledged, of course, somewhere in the book within a reasonable time.

There are important papers in the "Added References" sections, and readers should consult them where possible in order to be sure of having completely updated information on a country or region. The 1997 work by F. Malaisse, with chapters on the caterpillars, termites and other edible insects of Congo (Kinshaza) (formerly Zaire) is one good example. The three chapters (pp. 198-242) are also a good example of pages needing translation before this author can proceed with abstracting and future incorporation. Another good example is The Edible Insects of China, by Chen Xiaoming, 181 pp. published in 1999, in Chinese, and fortunately for some of us, with an English abstract. Chen lists 177 edible species, far more than will be found in our text on China. Another important recent source under "Added References" is the 1997 special issue of Ecology of Food and Nutrition, titled Minilivestock, edited by M.G. Paoletti and Sandra G.F. Bukkens, with chapters by various authors on a number of countries. In a chapter on Ecuador, a country for which little information was available previously, G. Onore lists 83 edible insect species.

Following the section on "Added References" in some chapters is an additional short section titled, "Items Needing Attention." These are mostly missing bits of information or other problems with the references already included under "References Cited." Here again, after all of the chapters are online, we will turn our attention to these "items needing attention." These are the sorts of dangling details I mentioned above that always take longer to clear up than one expects. Once again, I will probably seek help from readers who have ready access to a particular paper that poses a problem.

Finally, we welcome input from taxonomists who spot errors in our use of names or who can supply the names of species authors where these are missing. Prof. Robert Jeanne and Steven Krauth, Curator of the Entomology Department Insectarium have supplied names already of authors of some species of Hymenoptera.

Our first task now is to finish getting the existing chapter texts up on the website. After that is done we can think about how best to handle additional references and other alterations. Maybe, with help from users we can eventually make this a quite complete collection of papers on this important subject.


Although the main business of my laboratory was medical entomology, many individuals in the lab made a contribution to this project at one time or another, in one way or another. This was especially true of the people holding Specialist or lab assistant positions down through the years, assisting in research, doing library searches, formatting the Newsletter, etc., etc.; chronologically, three of the most involved were Marsha Lisitza, Joyce Keesey, and Catherine Howley. Postdoc Christine Merritt was also of great help, especially in rounding up literature. Howley and Merritt both put in many volunteer hours after my retirement and the termination of my medical entomology program with its associated funding. Graduate student research, of course, yielded pertinent literature. Mark Finke and Barbara Nakagaki earned PhDs, while Stephen Landry and Megha Parajulee took Masters' degrees on this subject, before continuing on to PhDs in other entomological specialties. Wives of two graduate students made an immense contribution by furnishing translations, Dianne Landry, who is fluent in French, and Heloisa Scholl, fluent in Spanish.

Moving up to the present time, thanks are due to my son-in-law, David Jansen of Portland, Maine who installed and has maintained this website up to now, with some help on maintenance from his daughter, my granddaughter, Cortney Jansen. I am greatly indebted to two of my Madison neighbors, Laura Herman and Jennifer Stevens, who come to the rescue when I am in trouble on the computer (which is most of the time when I am on the computer). Thanks go to Janet Deutsch, webmaster for the UW Department of Entomology who is helping put this book on the website, and will sometime in the future help shift it to the Entomology Department website or to the General Library System digital collections. I thank Lee Konrad of the Digital Content Group, General Library System and two members of his group, Jean Gilbertson and Jean Ruenger-Hanson, for valuable discussions on handling this as an on-line work. I am indebted to my Entomology Department colleague, Prof. Robert Jeanne, for establishing the contact with the Digital Content Group.

Gene De Foliart
Madison, Wisconsin
June, 2002

Page last update 9/29/02.


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