Importance of Insects Includes Source of Proteins for Humans

one-fourth of the earth's population eats insects

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Insects are part of over 2 billion people’s diets around the world. Often sold in markets and raised on farms, they are a rich source of protein and vitamins. A Wondrium series explores insects as food for humans.

Dr. Scott Solomon
Dr. Scott Solomon presents the Wondrium series Why Insects Matter: Earth’s Most Important Species. Photo by Wondrium

Very few North Americans and Europeans eat any kind of insect as part of their diet. However, bugs act as food for more than 2 billion people—over 25% of Earth’s population. Furthermore, it’s not a new idea. Early humans ate insects using the same method as chimpanzees, which is to lower a simple tool like a narrow bone or stick into an anthill or termite nest and fish the bugs out. Modern hunter-gatherers eat insects, but they’re also available for purchase in markets.

How do people prefer their insects? In his video series Why Insects Matter: Earth’s Most Important Species, Dr. Scott Solomon, Associate Teaching Professor at Rice University, guides viewers through the six-legged culinary arts.

Sold by the Pound?

“In Japan, the annual Hebo Festival is focused on collecting and eating yellowjacket wasp larvae; there’s also a competition for the person that brings in the heaviest wasp nest,” Dr. Solomon said. “Silkworms are raised for their silk in parts of south and east Asia. After they’ve spun their cocoon, and the long silk strand is harvested, the pupae can be eaten.”

According to Dr. Solomon, in Korea, silkworm pupae are known as beondegi and are a popular street food. They’re also canned and found at Korean grocery stores around the world. Meanwhile, in China, India, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea, weaver ant larvae and pupae find their way onto hungry diners’ plates.

“The largest larvae and pupae are those that would develop into queens, and these are considered the most desirable,” he said. “The worker ants aren’t often eaten because the formic acid they produce makes them taste very sour, but they’re sometimes used as a condiment to provide a citrus-like flavor.”

Vietnamese and Thai dipping sauces are often flavored by the essence of giant water bugs, while the bugs themselves are often eaten whole or ground up with other ingredients.

The Mexican Way

“Mexican cuisine is rich in insects, especially in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca,” Dr. Solomon said. “One of the most popular Oaxacan insect dishes is chapulines—grasshoppers seasoned with lime and chilies and fried. They are usually eaten on a corn tortilla as tacos, topped with salsa or guacamole, but chapulines are also great eaten by the handful as a crunchy snack.”

Dr. Solomon said that once when he visited Mexico City, he ate a sampler platter that included chapulines, scorpion, and leafcutter ant queens. They had been fried and then drizzled with mezcal liquor, chili powder, and lime juice, then served on a bed of sliced citrus fruits. He said they were “absolutely delicious.”

“Another insect common in traditional Mexican cuisine is the maguey worm,” he said. “It’s actually the larva of a butterfly known as the tequila giant skipper. This is the famous ‘worm’ sometimes found in the bottom of a bottle of tequila—or, more precisely, tequila’s smokier cousin, mezcal. The original purpose of including a maguey worm in a bottle of mezcal was to prove that the liquor was strong enough to preserve the larva, which would quickly decompose if there were not enough alcohol content.

“For mezcal producers, including a maguey worm in your bottle is a way to demonstrate the quality of your product while also practicing pest control.”

Why Insects Matter: Earth’s Most Important Species is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily