It was the last day of my trip--the chal-lenge I'd taken would soon be enforced. I was to eat a fried insect before I left Harbin, China.
"Chinese people eat anything," a friend told me as I started to lose my nerve. Before I knew it, I was standing at a street vendor's table, looking over a table full of assorted shellfish, meats and chongzi--insects. The raw "foods" looked like it they'd been sitting out all day long. It was now late evening and vendors were soon closing up for the night. The choices were grim: grasshoppers, an unidentifiable grub and a tub full of scarab beetles with legs, antennae and black shiny exoskeletons. My Chinese friend pointed out the best choice, with an all-too-eager smile on his face. I chose, and right there on the street, our street-cook fried them in a wok. Ten minutes later I was cleaning antennae out from between my teeth. Let me describe it for you: the beetles had an interesting texture. The insides are soft and squishy once cooked, the outer exoskeleton is crunchy but tough: it takes a few bites to chew it into swallowable pieces. On the whole however, it was pretty satisfying. I ate three.
Western folk are in fact outnumbered by the many cultures across the world who are willing to consider or perhaps even cherish insects as a tasty meal. For Westerners, it is a cultural ordeal to consider insects food; at the very least we express that squirmy "ewww, bugs!" feeling. For Chinese people, this cultural inhibition is not so prevalent. This doesn't necessarily mean that all Chinese people eat anything that moves, but their willingness to experiment is a little revealing.
According to University of Calgary Entomology and Zoology professor Dr. Rob Longair, insects are high in protein, rich in energy and provide mineral amounts much greater than daily requirements.
"Nutritionally, they're as good as or better than the sorts of things we promote that people should eat, particularly in Alberta," says Longair.
So why the beef against insects? As a culture, we believe insects are inherently dirty and show up in places that are not well-kept. Also striking is the fact that we are willing to celebrate eating bottom-feeders from the ocean, but not your everyday nutritious beetle. Entomophagy, an academic sub-discipline of entomology, is the study of insects as human food. Longair agrees with the assertion that insects don't receive the reputation they deserve in Western culture.
"We have an ultra-clean culture that we live in," explains Longair. "Anything that's difficult for us to control the numbers of is difficult for us to imagine as something that's good. We breed most of what eat right now and yet somehow, there is this difference between something like a grasshopper that feeds mostly on grass and yet people eat oysters and lobsters that filter absolute guck through their gills."
Cultural differences aside, there are many reasons that insects are important regardless of their nutritional value. Longair, during the early-semester lectures of his entomology classes, is often faced with the task of first convincing students to disregard their cultural bias and learn about the economic and scientific value of the most populous animals on earth. Vertebrates, including all mammals, comprise somewhere around 2.5 per cent of the total estimated living species. Insects are responsible for more than half of the species (and therefore biodiversity) on Earth. However, if one used the amount of resources allocated to entomology as a guide to estimating the the importance of insects, one would estimate that there must be a million species of furry mammals and one lonely beetle populating the earth.
"We invest millions of dollars, saving small numbers of certain organisms that are left--and I don't think that is unimportant," says Longair. "But I do think it's important that we tend to ignore properly funding other sorts of things that are being worked on. If you took the amount of money they spend on wolves, bears and other carnivores and large ungulates, and spread that among some of the other groups for which there is no funding, you could do a heck of a lot of research on insects--even if you had just the helicopter time that was donated by oil and gas companies. The stuff on grizzly bears and carnivores just keeps going on and on and on, and it's not that some of it is even necessarily new. Yet we know nothing about most of the organisms that are present in the national parks."
And those organisms are in fact insects. Insects have both detrimental and positive economic effects, typically manifested in the specialized, essential roles they possess in the ecosystem. These include pollination of some of our most profitable crops, nutrient recycling during soil turnover and providing food for our less-discriminating insectivorous relatives, such as birds, fish and some mammals. It is estimated that honey bees provide pollination services worth somewhere in the neighbourhood of $2-6 billion US, and that is in the U.S. alone. However, insects are also responsible for a great deal of negative effects, including animal and human health. Perhaps the best example of this is malaria, a mosquito-borne liver disease which, according to the World Health Organization, kills an estimated 1.5 to 2.7 million people every year. It is inestimable how much money it could require to fully eradicate malaria in the world, and part of that process would involve entomological knowledge. However, Longair has a unique take on this situation.
"Insects are obviously the most important things we need to pay attention to in terms of disease-causing organisms," he explains. "Here in temperate areas, we can afford to ignore those because most of the serious insect-borne diseases are associated with tropical countries. We haven't come up with any sort of cure or vaccination for malaria probably because it doesn't affect most people in developed countries. I believe that if this was something that caused the amount of harm in the U.S. and Europe that it does in the tropics this would have been solved a long time ago. Now, malaria is a tricky thing but if you think about AIDS, particularly the sort of drug cocktails that people can produce--and that's in 15 years?--and they've come a lot further than people have to being able to do anything about malaria. Malaria still kills millions of people per year, particularly young kids, and yet, there seems to be half-lame efforts to do anything about that."
While Longair's assertion may or may not hold water, this apparent tunnel vision is also not so far removed from biology departments across Canada.
"If you look at most biology departments, you'll find that the bias towards working on organisms has nothing to do with their relative numbers of species," he says. "There tends to be much more of a bias towards large organisms. Now some of that is because large organisms happen to be much easier to work on when you're cutting them up or working on them in the field."
In addition to the disrepute of insects found among the general public, this vertebrate-centric bias is expressed among academics. With respect to biodiversity, Longair indicates that this bias is expressed in yet another form. Studies of biodiversity could benefit tremendously from using insects as indicators of particular variables.
The status that entomology and insects currently possess in western society is not entirely devalued. Insects are perhaps only misvalued when we actually consider the effects that insects have on the natural and human world. This essentially means that insects are not properly studied given that they not only possess grave economic and health concerns for humans, but also within the greater whole of the ecosystem at large. While every culture has particular preferences and certain dislikes, the current cultural and scientific attitudes in western culture toward insects is likely irrational and unfounded. It is not so much a matter of undervaluing as it is a case of unexpressed potential. Science and biology provide many tools for the analysis of organisms and the natural environment. However, we have not applied these tools and resources to the study of something which affects our lives in a daily basis in terms of health, economy and the academic pursuit of science. Insects and entomology have a great deal to tell us, but first we must overcome our initial discomfort, open our minds and extend our curiousity.
Curious? Hungry? Contact Dr. Rob Longair at email@example.com for information about entomology courses at the U of C.