Several years ago, Dave Barry ran a column that instantly became my favorite. In it, Barry discusses why he doesn’t eat lobsters and cites some then current science to support his position. It is a fine piece of persuasive writing if you ask me! You can read the whole column on the Miami Herald website, and I highly recommend that you do, but the best part of the column for me was the comparison Barry drew between insects and lobsters. Of particular interest to me was the section where he suggested that he wouldn’t eat a lobster because it’s basically an oversized insect. I couldn’t agree more.
When people learn that I am an entomologist, I invariably get questions related to my work. People ask me to ID insects for them and lots of people ask me why I am interested in insects (usually in a disgusted or flabbergasted tone). These are my #1 and #2 most frequently asked questions. The #3 most frequently asked question is this:
Do you eat bugs?
This question baffles me. I don’t get where the question comes from, but I get it all the time. I accept that entomologists are probably slightly more likely to eat insects than most Americans, but why do so many people instantly jump from “entomologist” to “eats bugs?” Are people who study, say, condors constantly asked whether they eat their birds? People who study mice or wolves or bison? Why do so many people assume that I eat bugs just because I study bugs? If anyone has any insight into this question, by all means leave a comment. I want to get to the bottom of this.
For the record: I do not eat bugs, at least not on purpose. Personally, I find the idea repulsive. Bugs have exoskeletons, so they’re crunchy on the outside and mushy on the inside. I don’t like that combination at all. But I’m a picky eater in general and the most squeamish meat-eater you’ll ever encounter. Case in point: I don’t eat chicken wings because by the time I pick off all the skin, bones, fatty parts, and tendons, i.e. all the parts I consider inedible, there’s hardly anything left to eat, and certainly not enough to warrant all the work I put into getting it. If I’m not willing to eat a “normal” American food like chicken wings, an insect is so not going to happen.
I have a very long list of things I refuse to eat, and invertebrates top the list. These include lobsters, crabs, crayfish, mussels, squid, scallops, clams, and insects. I also don’t eat anything aquatic (ducks, frogs, fish, turtles, alligators, beavers – and yes, some people do eat beavers! I can pass along the sweet pickled beaver recipe I gave my sister a while back as a joke if you don’t believe me) because I think they are all vile. I will occasionally eat a pile of popcorn shrimp (which are delicious if I can trick myself into forgetting that they have exoskeletons long enough to eat them) or a few fish sticks (because fish isn’t vile if eaten in very tiny quantities and buried in breading), but I am otherwise opposed to all swimming and/or crawling foods. Yuck…
Aside from being a picky eater, I tend to be a bit sarcastic. Okay, okay. I’m a lot sarcastic. This means that when I get what I think is a crazy question (such as, oh, do you eat bugs?) full sarcasm mode ensues. I get this question so many times that I actually have a response ready to go:
“No, I do not eat insects. Do you eat lobsters? Cause they’re basically the same thing…”
Many people aren’t aware that this is essentially true. Consider these two points:
- The closest relatives to insects, based on DNA evidence, suggest that insects are most closely related to, wait for it, crustaceans! That’s right. My humble water bugs are likely a small step away from their aquatic brethren the lobsters, crabs, crayfish, shrimp, and pill bugs (or roly polies or sow bugs – whatever you happen to call those cute little land crustaceans that curl into a little ball when disturbed in your part of the world). So, in essence, insects and lobsters are about equivalent when it comes to the culinary experiences they provide.
- There are next to no marine insects, that is insects that live in the ocean. Some scientists have suggested that this is because insects originally evolved on land while crustaceans evolved in the ocean. When they decided to crawl back into the ocean, insects discovered that all of the good places they needed to live were filled up with, that’s right: crustaceans! The habitat and resource requirements of marine crustaceans are so similar to insects that they were able to prevent insects from invading their salty homes. Thus, insects and lobsters are about equivalent when it comes to the things they need to survive.
These two points together suggest to me that lobster = insect. Both of them are equally inedible as far as I’m concerned. Dave Barry had it right!
That said, I am not opposed to other people eating insects. I will happily watch someone else eating fried ant larvae or chocolate covered mealworms or one of those horrible scorpions embedded in a lollypop. I won’t even cringe while I watch or make snide comments! Just because I’m way too squeamish to eat an insect myself doesn’t mean other people shouldn’t. Americans have a huge hangup about entomophagy (i.e. consumption of insects by humans), but lots of other cultures include insects in their diets for one simple reason: insects are incredibly nutritious. They’re full of excellent proteins and several species are supposed to be quite tasty. The insects I study, the giant water bugs, are widely and happily consumed in southeastern Asia. They’re served fried or steamed and you can get them freeze dried or pickled in cans (see photo at left). In Thailand they’re often ground up and stirred into a chili paste to make a sauce. The people of Vietnam consider a secretion produced by a Lethocerus species a delicacy. It fetches very high prices at markets and may be partly responsible for conservation efforts related to giant water bugs in Vietnam. I’m glad someone else has tried water bugs and discovered that they’re incredibly tasty. But I’m still not eating one myself.
I have a can of Lethocerus in my office, the exact same brand as in the photo. It sits there unopened, but I love it anyway. I only know what’s inside because I saw one opened on the Food Network during a segment about the annual Explorer’s Club banquet a few years back. One of the foods served, among a hundred or so other random things that most people wouldn’t even consider eating, was my can of freeze dried Lethocerus. There’s no point to popping the can open if I’m not going to eat them myself. Besides, they make a great conversation starter at outreach events! Stash a can of Lethocerus next to a live Lethocerus swimming in a jar and you earn yourself a veritable river of people asking questions and eager to learn more about these fantastic bugs.
So there you have it, the answer to my third most frequently asked entomology question, the one that will always intrigue me. And because I find entomophagy fascinating, expect a post on the subject soon! In the meantime, I’m curious about how many of my readers might eat an insect, so today I leave you with a very brief poll.
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