Sunday, February 16, 2014

Insect farming and entomophagy

Well it’s not just insects, I should call it bug or critter farming, as it’s also worms, maybe spiders like tarantulas although they are not farmed for food or feed yet, and several other geni in the plate, if not in the bottle, like the tequila worm.

Entomophagy, not anthropophagy, dummy! (The Fly)
The first usage of bug farming that interested me was not as food, even though I was aware of it, but as feed, as a source of protein for poultry. Some grubs like black soldier have up to 40% protein, some caterpillars have about 55% protein and 17% fat, some hymenoptera up to 77% protein, it seems like a great idea to raise your own feed, and lots of it, in a very small volume.

Bugs as feed

Livestock such as poultry, pigs, cattle can use insects in their diet either raw or dried and ground as a protein replacement or supplement, especially in times of increasingly costly feed, but mostly poultry seems to be the prime candidate for bugs as feed. Fish farming is also developing fast, and could come second. Aquaculture integrates hydroponics and fish farming, but the fish still requires external feed, maybe insects could be integrated in that cycle too, and use vegetal waste as feed instead of commercial feed for fish. Then insects would be feed, not just bait. Just an idea.

A classical critter used for feed and compost is the earthworm, which is not an insect. Next is probably the mealworm, easy to raise and also a human food. Hens and pheasants go crazy for ant eggs but that’s probably harder to raise. Maggots make a great feed too, and will eat any animal waste such as fat or even leather, which is a great (smelly) way to dispose of these wastes at low cost, but they could introduce some sanitary problems. It might be OK for poultry feed though, or the mealworms could be pasteurized. Insects are a great way to valorize large quantities of toxic waste such as lagoons of pig manure. I was also wondering about other possible sources of self-serving proteins for chickens, like maybe tadpoles, which seem to always hatch in large quantities. Hens go mad also for mice, but I wouldn’t want to raise any, too many of them already without farming them. Maybe some small lizards or geckos? Chickens like them too!

The black soldier fly seems to be a better candidate for farming insects as feed (or even as food in this case): The female lays about 600 eggs, most of which will turn into large fat larvae, eating any vegetal waste or crop residue to get there. Here’s a video of farming it for feed. The insect seems to be a favorite on Youtube.

To farm bugs for feed, the system should require a minimum of intervention. For poultry, it should ideally have an automatic dispenser where chickens can grab a grub by themselves. For further processing, like drying the bugs into a protein meal, a way to clean the insect from frass (excrements) and vegetal residue should be designed. .In both cases, a knowledge of insect behavior is required to make the harvesting easier. For instance, knowing if the insect will naturally climb up a branch or burrow in the ground to pupate, and take advantage of the fact to install traps.

In addition to livestock and fish, insects can also be used as food for pets, including cats and dogs. Pet food is mostly corn, grain, fat and flavorings. See this video about pet food:

Bugs as food
But of course, bugs are great for food too, although I never went past shrimps and snails, if that counts. And if you don’t want to have a full scale insect farm crawling around everywhere, there are futuristically designed grub pods for the kitchen. Just open the neat larvae collection drawer when you feel like having some for breakfast. is preparing a similar open source bug farm, which you can build from free plans, or purchase as a DIY kit or already assembled.

There are over 1,900 species of edible insects eaten by 2 billion people according to the U.N. so there is no doubt you can find one to your taste bug, sorry, bud. As for meat conversion efficiency, insects such as crickets require 1 unit of low cost vegetal feed to produce 1 unit of edible meat. Poultry about 2 units of feed, pork 4, beef 9. Insects also produce about 10 times less greenhouse gas and ammonia than beef, and require much less water, compared to the 22 tonnes of water required for 1 kg of beef meat. Bugs are cold blooded and therefore do not expense energy to just keep warm, they can transform their feed into protein more efficiently. Imagine if Man had domesticated the cricket thousands of years ago, it would now be the size of a small chicken and have fatty legs that we wouldn’t need to remove before eating it...

For more information, here’s the latest 201 page FAO ebook on edible insects, another 69 page FAO ebook on edible insects in Thailand, and the (small) wikipedia page on insect farming. Check this great infographic on beetlemania too. Great blog and book on entomophagy on

I remember from Middle East books the locust of the Bible and the roasted cricket preserved in honey (another insect product) from the One Thousand and One Nights (I think.)
If you are in Montréal, Québec at the end of August, you can try many insects for yourself at the Eating Innovation Conference.

Farming insects also makes more sense than harvesting them from the wild, because you never know what plants and toxins they may have consumed or what substances they may have been exposed to. I always thought that my grandfather gave flour to the snails we harvested just to fatten them, but it was actually to give them time to be purged of all potential toxins too. Even so, bugs can harbor dangerous bacteria, so pasteurization via a quick boiling is probably safer. I am told that live tapeworm is not so good for your health… Pasteurization alone cannot remove toxins such as arsenic, that the Australian bogong moth transports for instance between fields treated with arsenic-based pesticides up to a thousand kilometers away, where it migrates. Arsenic can now be found in the soil where it congregates by the hundreds of thousands. A controlled environment is another argument for farming insects.

One way to overcome the Western “disgust” for insects as food is to make the insect not recognizable. There is for instance wheat flour mixed with ground dried mealworms. You just bake with it and have a protein-rich pastry. Meatballs and burgers of freshly ground insects already exist. The real fun will start when insects are part of the school menus though!

The future challenge is of course not so much convincing more people to eat insects as the population grows as convincing the people who already eat insects that beef is bad for them, so Westerners can keep eating meat. And insect farmers are also unlikely to see PETA and HSUS protest and ask for cage-free bugs.  ;)

Honey, pollen and propolis also come from the honeybee, and let’s not forget the Natural Red 4 or E120 red food coloring known as carmine, which is actually crushed and processed cochineal bugs. Nothing beats a drip of honey on a toast of escargot caviar...

Bugs as foe

Another usage of bugs is biological control of pests, for instance the ladybug predator of aphids, or other predators to fight the greenhouse whitefly for vegetable growers, and many other predators that either eat or parasite the target pest. Another way is to raise sterile insects, for instance the male of a pest to prevent its population from spreading. The same technique is used to fight malaria, by releasing sterile male mosquitoes. A good population of dragonflies would help controlling mosquito population too: Its larva is the ultimate predator of mosquitoes, it even hunts small fish, pikes are small fry:

Bugs as friend

And of course, some bugs are essential to human activities. Some farming areas have become biological deserts and need to import hives of pollinators. For instance the almond farms of California, where there is not a single plant in sight for hundreds of acres but almond trees. They would have no crop at all if anything happened to the honeybees or to the bee farmer they contracted for the job. The first Turkish fig trees grown in California never bore any fruit until they established a population of the miniature fly that pollinates this variety of figs.

Bugs as foul

Insect frass (excrement) also sells for good money as a fertilizer at about $5 a pound.

Bugs as fabric

Lastly, there is silk from the huge silkworm (maybe a good way to get rid of the mulberry weed in the U.S.) By the way, carmine was also used in the textile industry before the cheaper artificial dyes. Imagine that, carmine silk batik requires 3 different insects, the cochineal bug, the silkworm and the honeybee.

Bugs as (fill in)

There are probably other uses of insects I forgot (any suggestion?), and many that we haven’t discovered yet. I don’t suppose we manufacture formic acid from “formicas” (ants) anymore, but there are probably countless useful substances that could be extracted from insects, for medicinal, industrial or other purposes.

So, when do you start your bug farm?


1 comment:

  1. Do you have any video of that? I'd care to find out more details.

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