Master of the Killer Ants

Bugs You Can Eat

Before fast food, farms, or even wild game, insects fed prehistoric hunter-gatherers all over the planet. A near taboo in the Western world, entomophagy (insect-eating) is still practiced by millions of people in traditional societies—and by us, a couple of gastronomically adventuresome Western journalists. It began simply enough with witchetty grubs in Australia, but before we knew it, we were caught. Below, explore just a few of the stops on our journey to becoming gourmands of all things creepy-crawly.*—Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio

*Warning: Although many insects are edible, entomophagy poses some risks. If you are allergic to shrimp, shellfish, dust, or chocolate, never eat an insect. Even the non-allergic, unless in a survival situation, should never eat a raw insect. Certain insects store compounds that make some people sick; some are poisonous; others may be carcinogenic. Be as cautious with insects as you would be if you were gathering mushrooms. Know your insects!

Rock's Peony
Enlarge this image


Witchetty grubs

Faith: I tend not to like the taste of fatty foods, and this thing looks like a living, squirming, pasty-white piece of fat, which, of course, it is. But even thinking about this presupposes that I put this grub in the category of "food," which I don't. Or at least didn't.

Peter: The [fire-roasted] worm's skin is crispy and light; the flesh is creamy and delicate. Witchetty grub tastes like nut-flavored scrambled eggs and mild mozzarella, wrapped in a phyllo dough pastry. … This is capital-D Delicious. Maybe my idea of circling the globe seeking out cultures that eat bugs isn't so crazy after all.

Dawn Redwood
Enlarge this image


Silkworm pupae
Guangzhou, China

Faith: By the time I work up the courage to put anything in my mouth, the food is cold. I grab a silkworm pupa with my chopsticks along with a piece of green pepper. The pupa pops in my mouth rather unpleasantly and has the consistency of rubber, but the taste isn't too bad. As I wash it down with a mouthful of green tea I realize that it might have tasted alright if I'd eaten it hot.

Peter: When they are hot, the deep-fried ones are incredibly tasty. Each one pops in my mouth when I bite down, releasing a rush of flavor not unlike what I imagine a deep-fried peanut skin filled with a mild, woody foie gras would taste like.

Fortune's Rhododendron
Enlarge this image


Luoyang, China

Peter: The [restaurant] manager puts [live scorpions] into a small bowl of water. The scorpions aren't happy about this—they start thrashing about. A good sign, I decide. If we are going to eat live scorpions, let them be very alive. With chopsticks, the manager removes the scorpions from their bath and drops them in rice wine for a few minutes. The scorpions stop struggling and go into a coma. The chef then scissors off the tail stingers and poison sacs and arranges the scorpions on a plate. … We've been in China a month and so far my taste buds have been assaulted more times than the Great Wall. I brace myself, but the experience isn't so bad. It's very chewy with a gutsy, almost fishy taste.

Dove Tree
Enlarge this image


Stink bugs
Irian Jaya, Indonesia

Faith: If one must, it's advisable to begin by eating insects that crisp up well when roasted. I wouldn't suggest starting with anything too chewy, like a worm, or too fleshy, like cicadas. You want to ease into the experience while not making a total fool of yourself. It's helpful if the people with whom you are feasting are under the age of ten. They will be paying more attention to the meal at hand than to you. … Stink bugs fit the category of crispy insect. … The taste experience is rather like eating a bitter sunflower seed, shell and all, without salt. I chew quickly.

Primula Wilsonii
Enlarge this image


Bali, Indonesia

Faith: Although chicken replaced dragonflies on his dinner table years ago, [our guide] Darsana taught his children how to hunt the insect using a slender strip of palmwood dipped in the sticky white sap of the jackfruit tree. … Standing in one paddy, Darsana shouts encouragement as his 8-year-old daughter, Ni Wayan Sriyani, slowly extends her bamboo pole as far as she can reach. A dragonfly approaches, zig-zagging over the rice. Like an expert fly-fisher, she flicks out the end of her pole and catches the wing of the first dragonfly of the day. … [Later] the family returns home to fry the cache of dragonflies in coconut oil and pop them in their mouths like candy.

Regal Lily
Enlarge this image


Mexico City, Mexico

Peter: A researcher who brings her work home, [our friend] Julieta has a refrigerator that is a science project in itself—dozens of containers of live and dead insects. The insects are part of a cookbook project with dozens of bug recipes she has collected or concocted herself [including this one]:

Mealworm Spaghetti
1/2 lb. roasted yellow mealworms
4 1/4 cups water
1 tablespoon sunflower oil
1 sprig marjoram
1 sprig thyme
2 bay leaves
1/4 onion, chopped
8 oz. dry spaghetti
6-8 tablespoons butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
Olive oil
3-4 tablespoons pine nuts, finely chopped
10 sprigs parsley, finely chopped
1/2 lb. purple basil, finely chopped
1/2 lb. ricotta cheese
1/4 cup whole pine nuts

Boil water, add sunflower oil, salt, marjoram, thyme, bay leaves, and onion. Add spaghetti. Drain when done. Melt butter in sauté pan. Add spaghetti. Salt and pepper to taste. Mix basil, parsley, ricotta, oil, and chopped pine nuts with the spaghetti. Heat, but do not boil. Top with mealworms and whole pine nuts.

Paperback Maple
Enlarge this image


Oaxaca, Mexico

Peter: [T]he grasshoppers we found on [our] second visit to Mexico are daily bread. … They are especially popular in the southern state of Oaxaca.

Grasshopper Tacos
1/2 lb. grasshoppers
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lemon
2 ripe avocados, mashed
6 tortillas (corn or flour)

Roast medium-sized grasshoppers for 10 minutes in a 350° oven. Toss with garlic, juice from 1 lemon, and salt to taste. Spread mashed avocado on tortilla. Sprinkle on grasshoppers, to taste.

Peach Tree
Enlarge this image



Peter: The tarantulas are greasy, but good. The legs are crispy and each big hairy body is a decent-sized chewy bite that tastes like … deep-fried tarantula. Faith asks me what they taste like, but in the English language there are no words to describe it. If day-old deep-fried chickens had no bones, had hair instead of feathers, and were the size of a newborn sparrow, they might taste like tarantulas.

Faith: I break off a leg—it's two inches long, but seems like twelve. … Peter makes it very clear to everyone that I'm a lightweight in the Tarantula-Eating Hall of Fame. Big deal.

Peach Tree
Enlarge this image



Peter: In Uganda, snacking on termites is like raiding the refrigerator in the U.S., except that raiding a termite mound is more work.

Faith: First, hack into a waist-high termite mound to expose tunnels; second, cover the tunnel entrances with a cloth; third, wait while soldier termites attack the invading cloth; fourth, yank away cloth, pick off insects, and eat them.

Peter: Not bad—crunchy and nutty—but the bites are too little to get a fix on the taste. This snack is not for the squeamish.

Peach Tree
Enlarge this image


Mopane caterpillars

Faith: Catching mopane worms is messy and hard on the hands. The worms have thornlike points on their backs that are sharp enough to slice unwary fingers. … Julie [a local woman] grabs a handful, and holding them tightly at one end, she squeezes out the insides from the other end. Bright green and yellow juice spurts out—instant death for the caterpillar—and then the worms are tossed into the bucket [to be stewed later as seen here]. The guts smell like freshly crushed leaves, which is exactly what they are. The cycle—pick, squeeze, toss—happens over and over, filling the buckets to capacity as the day heats up.

Peach Tree
Enlarge this image


Palm grubs

Peter: The palms here are smaller than those in Indonesia or Uganda, but the grubs are the same size. The real difference is in the way they are eaten—uncooked. Raw, raw, raw—that's the spirit! But not for me. After we return to [our host's] house, the bowl of grubs sits out in the sun for about four hours. By the time people eat them, the white, wiggling worms are no longer white and no longer wiggling. I photograph everyone else sucking out the insides but I pass.

Faith: This is the only place we've been where Peter hasn't said he wants to eat the whole bowl of insects.

Peach Tree
Enlarge this image


United States

Peter & Faith: According to Larry Peterman, founder of the HotLix candy company, most Americans have two reactions to eating bugs: disbelief and disgust. In fact, he says, they buy his company's insect-related sweets and snacks because they think they're unbelievable and disgusting. [At right, the Cricket Lick-It, a real insect in a sugar-free crème de menthe-flavored lollipop.]

Images and quotes excerpted with permission from Man Eating Bugs: The Art and Science of Eating Insects by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio (Ten Speed Press, 1998).


We recommend you visit the interactive version. The text to the left is provided for printing purposes.

Master of the Killer Ants Home | Send Feedback | Image Credits | Support NOVA

© | Created October 2007