More than 2 billion people worldwide eat insects on a regular basis. From toasted ants served like popcorn in South American movie theaters to centipedes sold on a stick as street food in China.
They’re nutritious, loaded with protein and have all the essential amino acids. They are also high in calcium, Vitamin B12 and iron. And they’re a source of omega-3.
But for most of us folks here in the U.S., just thinking about eating a bug is enough to quash an appetite.
Then again, we might feel differently in a survival situation, where insects could be the only thing standing between us and going hungry.
Of course, it’s not as simple as chowing down on whatever bugs you can find. Let’s take a look at what you need to know to stay safe (and maybe even enjoy your food) if you’re ever forced to eat insects for survival.
What to avoid
For starters, you obviously want to avoid poisonous insects, which could leave you worse than just hungry.
How can you tell which are toxic? Short of learning how to identify poisonous species, paying attention to nature’s signals can tell you a lot.
For example, if you pick up an insect and notice a nasty smell, you should take that as a warning sign that it may be poisonous.
And just as the bright colors of Amazonian poison dart frogs act as a warning for predators, you’d also be better off avoiding brightly colored insects and caterpillars.
Other signs of danger include hairy bugs and those that bite or sting. That means leaving spiders alone, as well as disease-carrying insects like ticks, mosquitoes and flies.
Also, you’ll have to find another food source if you’re allergic to shellfish, which are related to insects.
What to seek
Luckily for us, there are plenty of insect species good for eating. You might find they don’t taste that bad if you can roast or even fry them first.
Ants are a popular food in many parts of the world, but you should avoid fire ants (which can bite back).
Just put a stick into an anthill and wait for ants to crawl all over it, then shake the stick off into a container.
Larvae, grubs and termites are also great sources of protein. You won’t have to dig too deep in the dirt to find grubs. And you can easily find larvae and other insects by looking under rocks, decaying logs and loose bark.
Grasshoppers and locusts and cicadas, oh my!
While not technically an insect, earthworms are edible and easy to spot. You’ll find them after a good rain.
When it’s wet, just dig a small hole and wait for the drowned earthworms to collect in it. Some say worms taste like dirt and sand (that’s what they eat, after all).
But you can make them more palatable by squeezing out the dirt with your fingers and/or cooking them before eating.
Some of the most popular edible insects across the world include grasshoppers, crickets, locusts and cicadas.
They’re best roasted, but you might want to remove their heads, feet and wings first because the protein is mostly in the abdomen.
Finally, June bugs are also a safe choice. Since they’re larger, they tend to have more protein than smaller insects.
How many do you need?
An important thing to remember when you’re foraging for bugs is that while they’re rich in protein, they’re also very small.
That means you’ll need to eat more than just one or two to stave off hunger and weakness.
The average person needs roughly 50 grams of protein daily if they aren’t doing a lot of physical activity.
What does that amount to in bug terms? You would need to eat 20,000 ants, while you’d only need to eat a dozen or so grasshoppers or two dozen earthworms.
So, while it may be harder to stomach the bigger insects, you’ll end up needing to eat fewer of them.
Don’t let it bug you
If you’re totally disgusted by the idea of eating insects, just remember – we all eat bugs every day. Small amounts of them are allowed by the FDA in everything from chocolate to fruit juice to canned vegetables.
Plus, you’ll pay big bucks for steamed lobster in a fancy restaurant, but you can eat all the wild insects you want for free.
Nobody wants to eat bugs in the wild for very long. But if they can keep you going for a few days until you find a better source of food, isn’t it worth it?
Knowing which ones are edible in advance could mean the difference between survival and not making it out alive.