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Lots of people chow down on shrimp and lobster from the ocean. So why not their land-lubbing arthropod cousins: insects?

They don't look very appetizing before you cook them--king of squirmy, about an inch long, off-white in color. But fry one in oil for about 40 seconds, sprinkle on some salt, and pop it in your mouth. Tastes like bacon, right?

Bon appetit! You've just eaten a waxworm, a baby insect that one day would have become a moth--if you hadn't gotten your fork into it.

If we had told you it was a deep-fried shrimp, would you still be fighting the urge to hurl?

Didn't think so. Funny thing, because crustaceans (such as shrimps, crabs, and lobsters) and insects are closely related. They belong to the same phylum, or group of creatures, within the animal kingdom.

All the members of this group have jointed legs as adults. Hence the phylum name: the arthropods, or joint-legged critters.

For some reason, many Americans can handle eating joint-legged creepie-crawlies that scuttle around the ocean. "But once they walk outside of the water, we're not interested," notes Gene DeFoliart, an entomologist at the University of Wisconsin.

That wasn't always the case. Tribes of American Indians used to trap swarms of insects in trenches where they'd kill and roast them withe fire. Grasshoppers and crickets were particular treats. Early Greeks and Romans favored locusts and beetle grubs. They even fed them grain to fatten them up.

No one is sure why people in the Western world lost their taste for bugs. Perhaps, suggests DeFoliart, the new practice of farming simply gave us a steady supply of other food.

But if you travel beyond North America and Europe, you'll find that insects are still a valued part of the human diet. In the African nation of Zaire, people feast on fried caterpillars (first squeezing out their intestines the way you might gut a fish). Order escamoles in a fine restaurant in Mexico City, and you get a plate of teenage ants. In rural Japan and Korea, cooked wasps are a delicacy.


"We're missing out on some good stuff," says Robert Kok, an agricultural engineer and insect specialist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Kok, DeFoliart, and a handful of other entomologists think it's perfectly okay to make a meal of mealworms and gorge on grasshoppers.

And these scientists practice what they preach. "There was a big out-break of cicadas in Illinois during the summer of 1990," DeFoliart reminisces. "We sent a student down there, and he brought back bags of cicadas. We baked those, and, boy, they were delicious--a distinct meaty flavor."

Nutritious, too. Insects supply the same sort of nutrition as beef--lots of protein, iron, and vitamin B, DeFoliart explains.

Besides, eating bugs is a lot easier on the environment than farming beef cattle. Compared to cows, insects convert a greater portion of the food they eat--plants and other bugs--into food you can eat--their meaty little bodies. That's because they don't have to burn any calories trying to stay warm; they're ectothermic, meaning their body temperatures fluctuate with their surroundings. The result is that, gram-for-gram, it takes less "grazing" land to fatten a bug than a cow.


OF course, no one's suggesting that you gobble down every bug you can find. "Insects are a huge class, with well over a million different species," says Kok. Based on studies in a Panamanian rain forest, another scientist estimates that there are more than eight million species of beetles alone.

No matter what the number, insects are certainly the most diverse lifeform on Earth (see diagram, pp. 16-17).

Some, like cockroaches, you definitely want to avoid at mealtime. Roaches carry disease and cna trigger allergic reactions, says entomologist Calvin Davis. And some species of insects contain poisonous chemicals.

Kok figures that about 90 percent of bugs are edible. "I'm not saying they all taste good," he adds, speaking from experience.

One rule of thumb for beginners: Eat 'em while they're young. Many insects pass through several stages before becoming adults. "Most beetle larvae [the immature, wormlike forms that hatch from insect eggs] are soft and very tasty," says Kok.

But after growing for a while, larvae undergo a process called metamorphosis, a complete change in body appearance. First a larva builds a case, or cocoon, around itself. Inside the cocoon, its simple tissues and organs literally reorganize themselves into more complex adult tissues. During this time, the bug is called a pupa. Then, after a few weeks or months, the adult insect emerges.


Adult insects are covered in a tough but flexible shell made of a hard protein called chitin. It's kind of like a skeleton worn on the outside, which is why entomologists call it an exoskeleton.

The exoskeleton may deter you from taking a nibble. After all, says Kok, with this armor, "your mature beetle is basically a walking tank."

Or maybe you'd be turned off by other features of the adult: wings (possibly one or two pair); legs (six in all); and antennae (those constantly moving feelers sprouting from the head).

But remember, you don't have to guzzle the bug whole. You can peel off all the leggy, crunchy stuff, just like you would peel off the exoskeleton of a shrimp, or crack open a lobster. Mmmmm!

The last piece of bug-eating advice Kok offers: Be careful. "I once had some fishing beetles in China," he recalls. "These are six-inch-long beetles that you pull out of the water and eat alive. You bite into them, and meanwhile their heads are trying to bite you. If you want a gross-out, I guess that's it."
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Title Annotation:includes recipes; eating insects
Author:Pope, Greg
Publication:Science World
Date:Oct 22, 1993
Previous Article:Weathering the summer of 1993.
Next Article:Holy Batman! The ride.

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