While at an entomology conference recently, one of the booths at the trade show was selling cricket flour, and foods made of crickets. In North American culture it almost seems out of place seeing insects being sold as food. In many cultures this is not the case, and you can easily find insects being sold as food in stores and markets. I have eaten baking made from cricket flour before, as well as other entomological delicacies such as mealworms and grasshoppers. Although I realize this is not for everybody, prepared properly they can be quite good, and nutritious. There are many insects that are used as food in many different cultures. In this month’s Incredible Creatures we will explore some interesting uses of insects as food in southern Africa, Mexico and the Middle East.
African Delights: Mopane worms and Termites
Mopane trees grow in the forests of southern Africa countries such as Angola, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and parts of South Africa. The caterpillars of a species of emperor moth, known as mopane worms, feed primarily, although not exclusively, on the leaves of mopane trees. These get to be quite large caterpillars, which people harvest for food.
Mopane worms are hand picked in the wild, often by women and children. When the caterpillar has been picked, it is pinched at the tail end to rupture the innards. The picker then squeezes it like a tube of toothpaste and whips it to expel the slimy, green contents of the gut. The traditional method of preserving mopane worms is to dry them in the sun or smoke them, whereby they gain extra flavour. The industrial method is to can the caterpillars (usually in brine). Tins of mopane worms can be found in rural supermarkets and markets around southern Africa. Mopane worms are an important source of protein for millions in the region. In many parts of southern Africa, mopane worms are a staple part of the diet in rural areas and are considered a delicacy in the cities. It has been estimated that annually 9.5 billion mopane larvae are harvested in Southern Africa’s mopane forests worth US$85 million. Of this approximately 40 per cent goes to producers who are primarily women from poorer, rural areas.
The wood of mopane trees is quite hard, which makes it resistant to termites. But other trees are not so resistant, and termites can be abundant in these areas. Termites are also an important food source across sub-Saharan Africa, where they are consumed as delicacies both in rural and urban areas. The insects are always harvested from the wild during the rainy seasons, the months of March to June and November to December being the most important. Several methods of capture are employed using water in basins and lamps to attract them at night. Termites are highly nutritious with high levels of protein, fats, key vitamins, and minerals.
Mexico: Water Boatmen Egg Cakes anyone?
When we think of eating eggs, usually chickens are the animal we associate them with. But this is not always the case. In Mexico, insects are often eaten. About 57 species of insects are eaten. This list includes grasshoppers, ants, maguey worms, ant eggs, and the eggs of water boatmen.
The eggs of water boatmen are made into a dish called hautle. Water boatmen are relatively small aquatic insects that suck juice from algae, plants and decomposing material. So how would you get enough eggs from these bugs to make an egg cake? These insects are abundant in lakes near Mexico City and other areas. Bundles of rushes that are attractive to egg-laying females are placed in the water, and after some weeks are removed, dried, and beaten on cloths to separate the eggs. The eggs are then cleaned, sifted, and ground into a flour that is used to make cakes known as hautle.
Middle East: Honeydew – Edible Aphid Excretion
Aphids are tiny insects that inject their beaks (proboscis) into a plant and feed on the sap. They need to feed on a lot of sap to get the nutrients they need, and end up excreting a lot of a sugar-rich sticky liquid called honeydew. If you ever parked your car under a tree and noticed it somehow got all sticky, odds are there were a lot of aphids in the tree. In the middle east people make a confection from the honeydew of aphids. In Hebrew, honeydew is called man. Some believe that honeydew is the biblical manna that sustained the ancient Israelites as they crossed the Sinai desert in their flight from Egypt.
The Kurdish people of Turkey and northern Iraq collect large amounts of honeydew from aphid-infested oaks. Branches are cut in the early morning, before the ants get the honeydew for themselves, and are beaten to knock off the honeydew. The honeydew soon hardens into a rock-like mass in the dry air. These rock-like masses of honeydew are sold to confectioners. The confectioners then dissolve it in water and strain it through a cloth to remove leaf fragments and aphids. The honeydew is then mixed with almonds, eggs and seasonings, boiled, then allowed to solidify. It is then cut into pieces and coated with a powered sugar. It is said to be delicious, and that once tasted the flavor is never forgotten. I have never had the opportunity to try this treat; something for the bucket list. See, it is possibly for an article on insects to turn into a recipe column.
There are many more examples of how people use insects for food, these are just a few select examples. There are many more I could write about; but like many movies you need to leave room for a sequel. Although some insects can at times be pests, insects can also be beneficial in many ways, and there is a growing interest in North America and other areas in raising or harvesting insects for animal or human consumption. And given their good nutritional profile, and efficiency of production compared to some animals, why not. So next time I come across another sampling of cricket confectioneries, I’ll take the words of Weird Al Yankovic to heart and “Just eat it”.
Incredible Creatures is a monthly contribution to provide information on some of the common yet often not well known creatures that we share space with in Manitoba and abroad. John Gavloski is an entomologist living in Carman.