A Simple Guide to Eating Insects for Survival

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Although we here in North America do not have a very strong tradition of eating insects owing to the availability of vast fields for cattle and agriculture, most of the other continents do. From South America, to Africa, and on into Asia, many different countries and cultures regard various bugs as delicacies and actually fetch a high price on the open market there. As a result, these people do not have the aversion to consuming bugs that we tend do, and they have ingrained traditions that allow them to know how to find, catch, and prepare these crawly meals properly.

Breaking a common misconception: bugs are not dirty or disgusting

Chocolate_ants

This delicious dessert is really a plateful of chocolate covered ants.

One important concept here is that bugs are not dirty or unhealthy to eat as we commonly think they should be. Granted eating flies and certain cockroaches that thrive on consuming waste is certainly undesirable, but many of the commonly eaten bugs thrive on vegetation or grain much like cattle and chickens do. Furthermore, they often have high concentrations of calcium, protein, and other important vitamins and minerals that are extremely desirable in a survival diet. To put it simply, it is in your best interest to overcome your inhibition regarding insects and at least be willing to cook and eat them in an emergency.

How to tell if the bug you’re looking at is edible

Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule that dictates which creepy crawlies are edible and which are poisonous, but there are a few general rules that can keep you safer.

  • Avoid brightly colored bugs. In nature, creatures without defenses hide in earth tones or leafy colors. If you run across a little caterpillar or beetle with a brightly-
    This poisonous caterpillar is spiny and brightly colored:  you want to avoid eating bugs like this at all costs.

    This poisonous caterpillar is spiny and brightly colored: you want to avoid eating bugs like this at all costs.

    colored “Please Eat Me” shell, it probably has a powerful toxin to protect it from predators. Note that there are prominent and common exceptions to this rule, but you should confirm that they are an exception before chowing down.

  • When it comes to caterpillars, avoid hairy or spiky specimens. Even if the spines aren’t poisonous, some of them can scratch and irritate your throat.
  • If a bug has a very strong smell, you should avoid it. These scents can be indicators for predators that this is not a suitable meal. Heed that warning!
  • No bug should be eaten that is found near cities, towns, or any other area with pesticides. Obviously this will be less of a problem after a few months without petrochemical manufacturing facilities, but early on there will still be plenty of places sprayed to keep bug populations down. If an insect consumes a pesticide it will pass on that poison to whatever eats it, and some of them are potent enough to leave you ill.
  • Whenever possible, cook it before eating. Yes Bear Grylls will swallow a giant grub straight out of the ground, but you should be a little more cautious. Many insects are themselves infested with parasites and worms, so a thorough cooking is needed to ensure that your meal doesn’t include any uninvited guests.
  • Most blood sucking parasites aren’t good to eat unless raised commercially. Ticks, mosquitoes, and lice are only suitable for eating when they’ve been fed diets that don’t include blood.
Although mosquitoes are horribly prolific, their blood-feeding tendencies make them unsuitable for consumption by people.

Although mosquitoes are horribly prolific, their blood-feeding tendencies make them unsuitable for consumption by people.

 

Common edible bugs in North America, and how to prepare them

Although it would be impossible to list every major edible insect (there are over 1,500 varieties of bugs that are edible!) this list covers some of the most common varieties that most people will be able to easily find and consume.

Ants

There are a large variety of ants, with differing tastes and harvesting methods depending on the type. Generally speaking, ants should be boiled both to remove fungus and parasites and to eliminate a bitter, vinegary taste common to most ants. Of prominent note are Leafcutter Ants and Carpenter Ants, two varieties fairly common to most people that eat primarily organic material which improves their taste. Fire ants can be eaten, but the threat of a swarm of painful bites and the potential for a dangerous toxin in their bodies to harm you makes them a desperation choice only.

Carpenter ants, ready to be cooked and eaten!

Carpenter ants, ready to be cooked and eaten!

Termites

Yummy pale white little treats, termites generally have a nutty flavor when cooked. Though these little guys are more commonly eaten in Africa where the humongous termite mounds are a common site, in North America you can find them by flipping over and cracking open rotting wood. The queens are highly prized as a delicacy, but the workers in the colony are probably the best eating on a consistent basis as they taste better than the larger soldiers. Termites are actually one of the better survival foods as their diet of cellulose gives them a very high in fat and protein and they also have every amino acid we require to survive, a rarity in any food source. As a bonus, most species do not require added oil to be cooked properly since the natural bodily oils do that for you.

If you can find a queen, you've hit the "mother" lode, so to speak.

If you can find a queen, you’ve hit the “mother” lode, so to speak.

Crickets and grasshoppers

These are among the least “offensive” bugs and great for the beginning insect muncher. They can be boiled, fried, sauteed, and even roasted for taste. It is usually recommended that you remove the legs off of these delicacies, since they add an unpleasant crunch and don’t really add any nutritional value.  They can be difficult to capture given their ability to leap and hop about, but a simple hole with a soup can or bowl and a piece of fruit, stale beer, or other bait will rapidly attract a few of these critters. Be aware that some brightly colored grasshoppers are poisonous and can even spit a foul smelling liquid at captors, so don’t bother trying to capture them unless you’re truly desperate.

Crickets are among the easiest for a new bug eater to start with. You can remove the legs to make it more appetizing.

Crickets are among the easiest for a new bug eater to start with. You can remove the legs to make it more appetizing.

Caterpillars

There are very limited populations of caterpillars are worth capturing for food based on their size and whether or not they are poisonous. The Tomato/Tobacco Horn Worms are one of the most prominent, and especially good to eat since they tend to consume valuable tomato crops if left alone. It is strongly recommended that you starve them for a few days before eating to remove any trace of toxin from eating poisonous tomato or tobacco branches/leaves. They are usually quite large and once you’ve found them catching them is as easy as pulling them off of the branch. They can be fried in oil, though you should take care not to cook them too long or they burst open.

The hornworm can devastate a tomato crop. Add it to your diet instead!

The hornworm can devastate a tomato crop. Add it to your diet instead!

Mealworms

These are commonly sold as food for various pets, and many people raise them to feed to chickens and other omnivores as a dietary supplement. They are also good for people to eat, commonly washed to remove traces of dirt and dust and then toasted until browned and then sprinkled with salt. Having eaten these myself, I can say that they taste like cornchips, though the pieces of exoskeleton are decidedly softer than a handful of Fritos. Although these are not commonly found in the wild (they tend to infest silos full of grains and corn) you can order a starter colony from several suppliers for less than $20.00 and begin raising them yourself.

Mealworms aren't often found outside of grain bins, but they are cheaply ordered and raised if you want a consistent meal source.

Mealworms aren’t often found outside of grain bins, but they are cheaply ordered and raised if you want a consistent meal source.

Centipedes

Yes, the little house centipede with a painful bite is edible. Just pull the head off, cook thoroughly by the method of your choice, and enjoy. Do not eat the millipede, a close cousin of the centipede. Millipedes have small poisonous glands that shouldn’t kill a healthy adult, but can cause stomach distress and illness. Although there are people who know how to properly cook and prepared a millipede for safe consumption, I wouldn’t recommend you try learning how on your own.

 

Be very, very sure you've pulled the head off before cooking. That bite can sting!

Be very, very sure you’ve pulled the head off before cooking. That bite can sting!

Bugs can ruin many appetites here, but they’re really a very useful, common, and practical food source during an emergency. Swallow that disgust (and maybe a few sauteed crickets) and be ready to eat what you must to survive.

 

What do you think?

What are your feelings on eating bugs? If you had to, would you do it? Let us know in the comments.

 

 

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