The Top Ten Edible Insects in North America
Challenge for every person in a survival situation -- Starve or eat insects and survive? Insects are plentiful. Many are safe to eat. Many are nutritious. Here are a few bugs to know about and how to catch and prepare them.
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Would you ever eat a plate full of insects? Most people in Western nations would shake their heads no in disgust.
For many the idea of eating insects is on the same level as eating something poisonous. You just don't do it.
Many people are shocked to discover that actually a large variety of insects are safe to eat -- a few of these insects are dangerous though -- such as the Goliath Bird Eating Spider of Venezuela, which is a tarantula the size of a dinner plate. Insects like these must be caught and handled carefully.
What about America? What if you ever found yourself in a survival situation where you simply didn't have food and you were nowhere near a store or any way to get help?
In America we're used to eating 3 or more meals a day for most of our lives. What happens if we go a few hours without food? For many people going a few hours without food is not something handled well -- before you know it you're tired, dizzy (low blood sugar), your stomach may burn, you're unable to think clearly; you feel weak, you just want to lay down and sleep.
Imagine going two days without food.
Imagine going a week.
At what point would you be finally willing to set aside your long held distaste for insects and finally see insects as something that can keep you and your family alive in an emergency or disaster?
80% of the World's Population Consumes Insects
Did you know that 80% of the world's population consumes insects
as part of their daily diet? That's according to Michael Spencer, a writer for PBS Newshour. Books on the subject of edible insects have the same thing to say.
Michael Spencer at PBS writes:
"Edible-insect advocates have set up food carts in San Francisco, conferences in Rome and food fairs in Bozeman, Mont., to promote the idea that insects can help solve food and protein shortages and reduce the huge, expensive efforts to grow beef and pork.
Insects, they point out, are much easier to grow than large animals.
And there are plenty of them. Of the 1.1 million species of insects scientists have identified and named, 1,700 are edible. They are cold-blooded creatures, which makes them much more efficient in converting energy to protein -- no wasted heat."
Then he adds:
"But the big advantage of eating insects is that they are generally healthier than meat. A six-ounce serving of crickets has 60 percent less saturated fat and twice as much vitamin B-12 than the same amount of ground beef. You don't have to sell the idea to the people of Madagascar; they eat about 15 different species of insect. And other countries -- including Thailand and China -- consume vast quantities of bugs."
Edible Insects in North America
Many nations near the equator with tropical climates have more bugs to choose from than people in North America. Tropical forests contain a vast amount more insects than forests in northern nations.
But in North America it turns out we still have plenty of edible insects right under our nose -- insects with protein, very little fat and that can help us meet our nutritional needs for the day.
Edible insects you may be quite familiar with but previously never thought of as food.
Today I hope to change your mind about that.
The most interesting part about including edible insects in your daily diet in a time of emergency or food shortages is this: If we include specific types of wild plants (wild edibles in nature) we can meet all our nutritional requirements for healthy living. At the same time we can cut the amount of excess calories that are eaten in the typical American diet -- you know all those extra calories that pack on the pounds and lead to high levels of artery clogging cholesterol and other ill effects on our bodies.
In other words, perhaps people shouldn't be so fearful about a food shortage taking place.
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It's not the end of the world (well it might be) but what I mean is if people are willing to adapt -- willing to think like a survivor -- empty store shelves doesn't have to be as horrific as it will seem for many people.
Eating Insects in an Emergency
In North America we have the means to live and survive off the land should the time come that we are either a) lost in the wilderness or b) facing a time of widespread disaster where grocery stores have closed their doors, empty and looted due to massive food shortages.
If grocery stores close due to a massive food shortage resulting from a critical breakdown in our nation's infrastructure, America will likely see something much worse than what we first faced in the Great Depression.
Many families went hungry for days at a time in the Great Depression. Fights broke out over garbage piles as men searched for food scraps to feed themselves or their families.
And we expect it to be worse than that? Yes. The population today is so much bigger than it was in the 1920s and early 30s -- there will be more people fighting over food scraps. Scraps will disappear quickly. And then what? Millions of hungry people growing hungrier and more desperate each day.
Eating Insects in a Survival Situation
Am I sugar-coating the idea of eating insects when it comes to survival? Well, you could say so. But like you if I find myself in a survival situation I'm going to need to give myself a serious pep-talk and say things like, "They're just termites. These things are healthy and safe to eat." Pep-talk said I can reach in and grab a handful and either eat them raw or throw them on a pan over a fire and attempt to saute them.
The Top 10 Edible Insects in North America
What are the top ten insects that are safe to eat in North America and that can usually be easily found? If there are hundreds and even thousands of edible insects to choose from across the entire continent, what are the top ten? I've chosen what I think are the top ten most easily recognized insects by Americans as well as common household names.
These are insects you can even consider caging, raising, and harvesting.
Crickets and Grasshoppers
Crickets and grasshoppers contain calcium as well as a high ratio of protein for their size (20.6 grams of protein for every 100 grams of insects). The legs and wings have no noticeable nutritional value to speak of and at the same time add an extra "crunch" to each bite -- because of that many people choose to simply pull off the legs and wings before eating any. Eat them raw or cooked -- but like most insects they'll probably go down a lot easier when they've been cooked.
Locusts are a term used to describe crickets and grasshoppers when they form swarms, meaning they travel in large numbers and have been known to devastate crops and terrorize farmers. In some parts of the world locusts are eaten as a staple -- in fact when these swarms take place people are known to sweep them up into bags for later consumption. The Rocky Mountain locust was known to form some of the largest swarms known but is said to have gone extinct in the 19th century. Locusts were plagues that decimated crops used by God in the Old Testament at times to inflict punishment. A plague of locusts would eat crops down until there was nothing left.
Caterpillars (moth / butterfly larvae)
Of all the edible insects, caterpillars surprised me the most. There's something about these hairy or hairless bugs that just doesn't seem that palatable, yet they're reported to be quiet healthy, containing high amounts of protein, very little fat, iron, plenty of B-vitamins like niacin and thiamine. Here's where the data seems to be incomplete or just not fully published on the subjects of caterpillars. Some are reported to be toxic but the sources I found failed to list just which ones were safe to eat and which ones aren't. Further down you'll read about tell tale signs that insects aren't good to eat from which ones that are (I'm talking about bright colors that usually signify a insect that is not safe to eat. I would suggest that you apply that to any caterpillar that you find -- whether it has "hair" or not.)
Ants are edible -- though not all ants are friendly. Some, like fire ants, can bite. If a lot of them get on you those bites can be painful. When it comes to ants, you just need a way to safely scoop them into a container (which means typically digging into an ant hill) and then a way to shake them free of any soil that is also scooped up. When you've figured out a way to separate them from the soil, boil them in a shallow pan. Boiling removes a vinegar taste they have when eaten raw. In an emergency situation who cares about taste however? Ants can be a quick source of food if you're running through the woods and don't have time to put a fire together and boil up a batch.
June Bugs are actually a common species of beetle. Some of the largest have been found living alive and well in populated cities like Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and strangely Denver, CO. I've seen plenty of these guys around in my day (usually the smaller ones) and they're reported to be edible -- even a tasty snack when grilled or cooked over a fire.
Look for these bugs either on plants in the late evening hours or during the day look under plants and plant debris on the forest floor. They don't move very fast -- sometimes they don't seem to move at all -- and can be easy to catch.
At the same time pay close attention to any downed trees, decaying logs, and stumps that may contain termites. Like caterpillars and many other bugs, termites are also high in protein. Of course because they're small you'll have to eat quite few. Other parts of the world like Africa, Asia and South America termites are known to build mounds -- termite mounts. You'll only find fossils of termite mounds in North America though. When you're in the wilderness your best bet is to look for termites where they can be typically found -- damp, dead wood. For survivors in the wilderness, there is usually plenty of damp, dead wood to be found, particularly in forests and in coastal regions that receive a lot of rain.
How many times have you flipped over a log or large rock to see a centipede skitter away? One of the fastest meals when you're lost in a forest is going to be a centipede. While you're looking for termite logs and tree stumps keep an eye out for other outcroppings you'll likely find centipedes hiding under.
Centipedes are not to be confused with millipedes -- millipedes are smaller and have more legs while centipedes in general are larger -- centipedes have a lot of legs, just a lot less than a millipede. Millipedes are poisonous -- do not eat these guys. They emit a foul-smelling cyanide substance, the source of their poison. Be sure you know the difference between a centipede and a millipede. (Orkin calls them pests -- some people call them lunch.)
Centipedes can inflict damage as well, but that damage comes from it's pinchers when they bite. Like a scorpion's tail or a venomous snake's head though, a centipede's head (and pinchers) can be simply cut away and the rest of the insect eaten.
Hatched from eggs laid by darkling beetles, a common beetle in North America, mealworms are nutritious and a staple of primitive cultures. There are over 1400 species of darkling beetles in North America. When cooked they're said to be some pretty tasty insects -- a lot like roasted seeds or nuts. Here's a site that lays out instructions for raising a mealworm colony for the purpose of insect harvesting: Abigale's Edibles
You'll typically find scorpions in the southern desert areas of the United States though they are common in other parts of the world as well. You can raise scorpions for later harvesting or you can hunt for them outdoors by looking for small holes under rocks, trees, tree limbs, or other outcroppings in the soil. When you find scorpion holes it's not hard to catch them and skewer them -- though it will take a few containers such as glass bottles or plastic Tupperware ... heck, even small paper bags weighted down with a rock would work -- though you wouldn't want to be stung through the paper should the scorpion strike. With that in mind it would be best to have yourself a glass bottle to catch these guys in.
What you do is dig a second larger hole at the base of the first hole, and place your bottle in the hole for the scorpion to fall into when he exits his hole. If you place a number of bottles around the area where you find suspected scorpion holes you're likely to catch yourself a few.
With a sharp stick you can poke right through its side; remove the scorpion from the bottle and pin it down; take a large knife and cut away it's tail; that's the part that will sting you and is venomous. Be sure to bury the stinger. No sense in getting stung because you got careless. Scorpions are said to be best eaten roasted over a fire or grilled in a pan, but they can also be eaten raw. These are a delicacy in many places and popular with a lot of people.
Bees / Wasps (wasp larvae)
Bees and wasps are a daily part of our life -- when the weather warms the windows and doors open and before you know it in flies an insect you'd rather not have around the house.
When it comes to survival, how do we find a bees nest or wasp nest that could be hundreds of yards from where that first bee or wasp is located?
David Cordon, author of "The Eat a Bug Cookbook", reports that traditional wasp catchers in Japan would tie a long silk thread to a wasp they caught, then follow that wasp and the trailing thread to it's nest. Once at the nest they then used smoke to drive away the wasps so they could get to the edible larva within the nest.
My recommendation is if you're going to use that technique to look for edible wasp larvae, you should do this: Build a big fire and use a lot of smoke ... use more smoke than you think you need ... smoke those wasps out for a few hours if that's what it takes. No sense in rushing it and getting stung by a bunch of wasps because you didn't do a good job smoking them out of the nest. This is one of those things where you need to read between the lines.
David Cordon also gives a recipe for cooking honeybees -- adult honeybees. One way to find a honeybee nest could be the same exact way that the Japanese in past generations searched out wasp nests -- by catching a wasp and tying a long thread to it and simply following it. In America silk thread isn't as easy to come by as sewing thread may be. If you have sewing thread packed in your emergency kit then you have the means it seems to track down a honeybee nest. Of course another way is to comb the country side with a small group of people, making note on paper of the location of every wasp nest and honeybee nest you come across.
How do you tie a thread around a bee or wasp? Have fun with that one. The Japanese did it.
Signs that Insects Aren't Safe to Eat
Experts say that insects with bright colors like red, orange and yellow aren't safe to eat, though some edible insects are disguised by these colors as part of their natural markings. Due to the danger of eating poisonous insects, it's best to just swear off red, orange, and yellow bugs.
On the other hand black, brown, and green are typically colors of insects that are safe to eat.
If you detect a strong odor around an insect, that's also a sign that it's probably not a safe insect to eat.
Because of Pesticides Avoid Eating Insects from Urban Areas
Though the insects named above are safe to eat, avoid eating any of these insects if you find them in urban areas, or even in the countryside around homes and neighborhoods. The reason is pesticides. Many people spray bug killer and lay traps around their homes and these pesticides can be spread to insects in the area, making them a bad choice for a food item for human ingestion. Instead, travel a few minutes out of town just to be on the safe side. No sense in loading up on pesticides when plenty of safe, edible insects can be found a short distance away in the woods, brush, or meadow or near a river or creek.
Some insects may have snacked on something not very palatable to humans and now the remnants of that last meal reside inside them.
This can make the insect a bit less tasty as well as possibly upset your stomach and possibly even cause sickness. There's a way around that though -- which is to round up insects and place them in a small cage and then feed them grain for a couple days. That's said to clear out the remnants of whatever they ate last and even improve their taste a notch.
In third world countries (and even some developed countries) insect harvesting is big business -- you'll find people in many market areas with large displays of edible insects to buy in bulk, sometimes pre-cooked and on a stick or simply in a bag or box, ready to take home to the family to be cooked later that day or later that week.
I have to say that the long term success of raising insects for sale in foreign marketplaces really sets an example for ways to cope and adapt in times of food shortages. After all the data is in, raising insects through farming and harvesting can be a way to survive and come out ahead in a widespread disaster.
Insect Farming / Insect Harvesting
Farming insects and later harvesting them for either sale or simply to keep your family alive in a time of serious food shortage may be the ticket out for a lot of people to avoid slow starvation in a time of catastrophic disaster. Unfortunately, for most it will take knowledge -- would families around in the time of America's Great Depression have embraced insects so readily as the generation around today? Today we have knowledge. Shows like Fear Factor (NBC) have helped lower psychological walls people have regarding edible insects and more and more books and articles in the news about eating bugs in general are likely paving the way for this door to open to Americans in a time of crisis.
If you find a bug that looks safe to eat but you're not sure if it actually is safe to eat, consider doing a test where you cut off a small part of the insect -- cook it if you can just to be on the safe side, removing any possible bacteria the bug may have picked up somewhere in its travels -- and then eat that small portion of bug that you've cut away. Wait a couple hours. If everything seems ok eat a bigger portion. Wait a few more hours. If you're still fine that bug is probably safe to eat.