National Geographic News
Fried locust on display before being eaten.

Insects, like these fried locusts on display in a market, are a popular snack in a number of countries.

Photograph by Amir Cohen/Reuters

Jennifer Holland

for National Geographic

Published May 14, 2013

Ants are sweet, nutty little insects, aren't they?

I'm not talking about their personalities, but how they taste. Stinkbugs have an apple flavor, and red agave worms are spicy. A bite of tree worm apparently brings pork rinds to mind.

This information will come in handy for those of us following the latest recommendation from the United Nations: Consume more insects.

A report released Monday by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reminds us that there are more than 1,900 edible insect species on Earth, hundreds of which are already part of the diet in many countries.

In fact, some two billion people eat a wide variety of insects regularly, both cooked and raw; only in Western countries does the practice retain an "ick" factor among the masses.

Why eat something that we usually swat away or battle with insecticides? For starters, many insects are packed with protein, fiber, good fats, and vital minerals—as much or more than many other food sources.

One example: mealworms, the larval form of a particular species of darkling beetle that lives in temperate regions worldwide. Mealworms provide protein, vitamins, and minerals on par with those found in fish and meat. Another healthful treat: small grasshoppers rank up there with lean ground beef in protein content, with less fat per gram. (Related video: Family learns how to cook and prepare mealworms.)

And raising and harvesting insects requires much less land than raising cows, pigs, and sheep. Insects convert food into protein much more efficiently than livestock do—meaning they need less food to produce more product. They also emit considerably fewer greenhouse gases than most livestock (think gassy cows).

Entomophagy, the consumption of insects as food, is also a safe and healthy way to help reduce pest insects without using insecticides. Plus, gathering and farming insects can offer new forms of employment and income, especially in developing tropical countries where a lot of "edibles" live.

That helps to explain why 36 African countries are "entomophagous," as are 23 in the Americas, 29 in Asia, and even 11 in Europe. With so many species swarming the globe it's difficult to parse out the specific ones most often eaten, so we'll go a little broader—to the top edible insect groups. According to my favorite cookbook, Creepy Crawly Cuisine by biologist Julieta Ramos-Elorduy, a leading proponent of the entomophagy movement, here are the eight critters most often ingested worldwide.

1. Beetles

The most commonly eaten beetles are the long-horned, june, dung, and rhinoceros varieties. These are munched by people living in the Amazon basin, parts of Africa, and other heavily forested regions, both tropical and temperate, as diverse species are easily found in trees, fallen logs, and on the forest floor. (Native Americans, I've heard, would roast them over coals and eat them like popcorn.) They are efficient at turning cellulose from trees (indigestible to humans) into digestible fat. Beetles also have more protein than most other insects.

2. Butterflies and Moths

They do more than look pretty fluttering across a meadow; these winged insects, during their larval and pupal stages, are succulent and full of protein and iron. They're very popular in African countries, and are an excellent supplement for children and pregnant women who may be deficient in these nutrients. In Central and South America, fat and fleshy agave worms, which live between the leaves of the agave plant and turn into butterflies, are highly sought after for food and as the famed worm dropped into mescal, a Mexican liquor. Cultivation of these worms could help protect them from overharvesting.

3. Bees and Wasps

We love bees for their honey, but they have more to give. Indigenous people in Asia, Africa, Australia, South America, and Mexico commonly eat these insects when they are in their immature stages. Stingless bees are most commonly munched, with wasps a distant second. Bee brood (bees still in egg, larval, or pupal form tucked away in hive cells) taste like peanuts or almonds. Wasps, some say, have a pine-nutty flavor.

4. Ants

You're probably thinking that it takes a lot of ants to make a meal. True. But they pack a punch: 100 grams of red ant (one of thousands of ant species) provide some 14 grams of protein (more than eggs), nearly 48 grams of calcium, and a nice hit of iron, among other nutrients. All that in less than 100 calories. Plus, they're low in carbs.

5. Grasshoppers, Crickets, and Locusts

Grasshoppers and their ilk are the most consumed type of insect, probably because they're simply all over the place and they're easy to catch. There are a lot of different kinds, and they're a great protein source. The hoppers have a neutral flavor, so they pick up other flavors nicely. Cricket curry, anyone? Meanwhile, locusts move in swarms that devastate vegetation in countries where people are already struggling to eat—one of several reasons to turn them into dinner. (See video: Family prepares a cricket stir-fy.)

6. Flies and Mosquitoes

Not as popular as some of the others, these insects—including edible termites and, yes, lice—still have a place at some tables. Flies that develop on various types of cheese take on the flavor of their host, and the species from water habitats may taste like duck or fish.

7. Water Boatmen and Backswimmers

Easy to cultivate and harvest, these cosmopolitan little guys deposit eggs on the stems of aquatic plants, in both freshwater and saltwater environments—even in stagnant water. The eggs can be dried and shaken from the plants to make Mexican caviar (tastes like shrimp), or eaten fresh for their fishy flavor.

8. Stinkbugs

If you can get past the funky smell, these insects apparently add an apple flavor to sauces and are a valuable source of iodine. They're also known to have anesthetic and analgesic properties. Who would have thought?

Share your insect-eating stories in the comments.

47 comments
Steve Bailes
Steve Bailes

Wish I could find a good resource to check for "edibility" of bugs.  (e.g. are the yellow bean beetle larvae edible?)  I like cabbage worms, horn worms, broccoli worms, corn silk worms, june bugs, cicadas, grasshoppers, crickets and ants.  Saw some good suggestions in this article.

Billie G
Billie G

Bugs only freak you out because its not the norm to be eating them. once we break that barrier, we could pretty much eradicate hunger and the pollution caused by large scale feed lots currently required for conventional meat. I am a vegetarian and plan to be eating a whole range on insects when i will be in asia this summer. Be the pioneers!

Ray Lewis
Ray Lewis

Yumminess is in the eye and taste buds of the beholder. I visited this country where there are natives whose religion tells them that all insects and shelled creatures should be banished from the face of the earth so if they see lobsters being served in restaurants they would come in and beat the hell out of the lobster,plate and all  : )

Ray Lewis
Ray Lewis

Yumminess is in the eye and taste buds of the beholder. I visited this country where there are natives whose religion tells them that all insects and shelled creatures should be banished from the face of the earth so if they see lobsters being served in restaurants they would come in and beat the hell out of the lobster,plate and all  : )

Soopreem Whitey
Soopreem Whitey

Only mongrels would see a bug and think of food.

..only a mongrel.

Danielle Wagner
Danielle Wagner

I wish I could understand why it's gross to me. I think it's just one of those leaps you have to take before you realize how dangerous it isn't

Bob Gromski
Bob Gromski

Makes sense...the UN wishes we would live like insects in a hive (the euphemism is 'sustainable development') and relinquish all of our individual freedom for the good of "community"...so we might as well be reduced to bug eaters as well.

Cephas Peter
Cephas Peter

I like the work of the UN and its Agencies. But I wanted to share this view with members. The UN is persuading people to eat (insects or whatever). How about persuading them NOT to eat anything at all? I am talking about the phenomenon called breatharianism: people spending years without eating or drinking? Heard of Kirby de Lanerolle? Or Jasmuheen? Or perhaps, above them all, Prahalad Jani, the 82 year old sage who says he has spent 70 years without food or drink and whose claim has been verified by not fewer than 30 medical doctors? Consider this: if a mere 10% of world population could be convinced to permanently or even partially banish food materials from their bellies, how many lives of our lovely creatures, trees, plants etc and now, insects, would be saved?! How many forests would be saved or replanted? What would our environment look like? Our oceans and their marine life? How many wars would be avoided?! Virtually every destruction man has brought upon this planet has to do with his eating. So, rather than the UN encouraging man to extend his frontiers of acquisition to fill his stomach, I believe this organization could serve man and all creation much better if it considered examining ways of how man's appetite for food materials can be curtailed; if not totally eliminated. Part of the huge funds now invested in promoting all forms of eating activities (agriculture, fisheries, health, name it) could be channeled into the study of and research into how breatharianism can be attained and sustained in human populations. This would, I think, do mankind and the world much greater good than asking us to eat bugs.

Steven Beckman
Steven Beckman

I've eaten different bugs. Mealworms in particular are actually quite good in a stir fry. Psychological disgust is nothing more than a cultural issue. We are raised in the US to think it's gross to eat insects. Why? Think about it... why is it gross to kill and eat insects, but not gross to kill and eat farm animals? What's the difference really? The flavors aren't disgusting, the THOUGHT of it is. What's crazy is if we ever found this country in some terrible food shortage, many people would starve to death and die when the plants at their feet and the insects crawling on them would sustain them... quite well actually. I think people are so far removed from what they actually eat that they believe there's some meat factory that exists in the back of every grocery store where the meat magically appears plastic wrapped under florescent light. Do some research, you'll find the reality of corporate agriculture makes eating insects look like a gourmet meal when you actually see what happens at these 'farms'. If you are a little interested and live where pill bugs or sometimes called 'rolly polly bugs' do, go collect some. Pill bugs are actually crustaceans (think shrimp, lobster, crayfish) not insects. They taste remarkably like shrimp when cooked.

Lawrence Leffler
Lawrence Leffler

I think I will stick with beef and chicken.  Bugs are disgusting.  If the UN people want to eat them, they are welcome to dine to their heart's content.  They can have my portion too.   Got to sign off.  Barbequing a steak!

Lawrence Leffler
Lawrence Leffler

I think I will stick with beef and chicken.  Bugs are disgusting.  If the UN people want to eat them, they are welcome to dine to their heart's content.  They can have my portion too.   Got to sign off.  Barbequing a steak!

David Gordon
David Gordon

It's nice to be 15 years ahead of the UN.  My Eat-a-Bug Cookbook was originally published in 1998 and the revised and updated edition (with 40 recipes for preparing grasshoppers, ants, water bugs, scorpions, etc.) will be released by Ten Speed Press in mid-July.

Sarah Bell
Sarah Bell

I ate termites in Belize and they were not terrible. Popped in your mouth and tasted like minty carrots!

Elena Danao
Elena Danao

some of them i tried to eat and have a good taste

Kausik Bhattacharyya
Kausik Bhattacharyya

Great we have destroyed the trees being a Lumberjack ! The animals wherever we see for leather, shoes, ornaments.

This time lets take the Insects out ...straight towards extinction eat them up all destroy them!

Because we Humans are Omnomnomnomnomnivorous !!

Bradley Johnson
Bradley Johnson

During these hard economic times, an alternative source of food is very welcome. In addition eating healthy should be the priority during this day and age so as to avoid the common lifestyle diseases that are very common these days and these insects carry the natural nutritional value and diet required for healthy eating and living.

Alec Sevins
Alec Sevins

Insects are the only species Man is unlikely to force into extinction, so this could ease several problems at once. But people still need to use more birth control.

Beau Evil
Beau Evil

This is supposed to be a  PEAK year for cicadas. Those succers are HUGE (but very ugly)! I'll try a few raw at first, then figure out a sauce for stir fry. I always felt that, if I were a subsistance farmer in some third world country, and locusts came to devour my crops, I'd eat every one I could grab!  Steal MY food, will you?! 

Paul Pardee
Paul Pardee

Lets have the delegates to the UN have a bug banquet to show their support of entomophagy.  I know that support from political leaders would help. I'm sure having the Obamas munching on some meal worms while Prince Charles and Camilla have a feast of crickets will really push people towards eating insects instead of food.

Michael MacBride
Michael MacBride

mMMMmMMM ive been raising insects for years now and ive always wanted to try and eat them myself instead of just giving them to my reptiles or the other carnivorous bugs i keep... still have yet to get the courage to crunch em down myself but i have been contemplating it for some time :) 

Nate Jones
Nate Jones

@Danielle Wagner You find it gross because USA brainwashes you into thinking it is gross, (movies, tv shows, Danish game show, and fear factor). That and if you say you like eating bugs, you will get laughed at and no one is going to want to hang around someone that eats what most find disgusting. If you are in a country where everyone eats bugs and you find it disgusting, you will be looked at like an idiot.

Sam Hirsch
Sam Hirsch

@Bob Gromski

People starving throughout the world- and we get ridiculous comments like this. Well, congratulations on the ability to share your point of view without critically thinking about it...

Andre Weichbrod
Andre Weichbrod

@Cephas PeterYou've a lot to learn. The UN does nothing good for mankind. Before you blow me off, I was a staff member of the World Bank for about 5 years in the 1980's; I left because I realized I was working for an organization built to rape the world to the benefit of the wealthy.  You should be very careful to look deep and never take anything at face value. The world is one huge deception.

Andre Weichbrod
Andre Weichbrod

@Cephas Peter You've a lot to learn. The UN does nothing good for mankind. Before you blow me off, I was a staff member of the World Bank for about 5 years in the 1980's; I left because I realized I was working for an organization built to rape the world to the benefit of the wealthy.  You should be very careful to look deep and never take anything at face value. The world is one huge deception.

Nate Jones
Nate Jones

@Cephas Peter Do you know what you are asking? You'r basically asking An Alcoholic to stop drinking alcohol, Drug addicts to stop doing drugs. No one is going to stop eating food to save the world. NO ONE IS GOING TO SACRIFICE WHAT THEY LOVE FOR THE WORLD, (it's not a powerful enough reason to stop what people love to do).

Also, only way people will change is if it effects them on a large scale, (eating healthy to become more sexy, attract sexier mates, more agile, more energy, and largely decrease diseases like cancer). 

Why do you think burger king is out there? Is it to make people healthier? NO, it's to gain $, everything is about $. They want people to give into burgers because burgers are so addictive. So people come back, then they get fat and have to spend $ at gyms. 

If you want this world to be a better place, well good luck. The government wants people to have problems to make more $, they don't want everyone to be healthy, because then they are equal to the general pub and then would not have so many great things. If you don't want so many problems with food, then the world needs to stop in all areas that make us consume so much food. If you discipline food intake, you eat less. If you drink more water (8 -8oz glasses) a day, you will eat less. If you watch what you eat and don't eat empty calories like soda, and fill up on fiber/protein  foods  (bugs, fish, nuts, fruits, veggies) and exercise daily, We wouldn't have such a economic problem. 

If you want the world to improve, you must fix the core problems. Will they get fixed? NO. All you can do is just improve yourself and hope others follow. 

Wes Niarhos
Wes Niarhos

@Cephas Peter How long have you been a breatharian? When did you last eat or drink?

Ian Campbell
Ian Campbell

Just shop at Whole Foods and places like that. The food comes from nice family farms for the most part.

Heather Sayyah
Heather Sayyah

@Steven Beckman  I like the idea of insect farming. I'm going to try to farm mealworms. With farming food on your own, you know what the animals ate and how they were raised. I will try the pill-bug idea if I see them somewhere.

Maksim Lai
Maksim Lai

@David Gordon It's great to learn that some one has contributed to bugs recipe. I'm very interested in your book and I would like to buy one. However, I can't find it on sale in China ( I live in China). Hope you can see my comment and contact me. Thank you!

Ian Campbell
Ian Campbell

Fattest country in the world. Last thing we need is more food.

Mark Caris
Mark Caris

@Alec Sevins Insects are a class of arthropods, not a species. Many species of insects have already been rendered extinct by the actions of man.

Jennifer Holland
Jennifer Holland expert

@Paul Pardee I agree it would be great to have some political muscle (e.g., the tongues/jaws) behind it! (: Maybe Mrs. Obama can add a bug farm to the White House garden.

Mark Caris
Mark Caris

@Paul Pardee Yes, eating bugs is disgusting. Not wholesome like hormone fed, fecal-spattered beef, covered with a processed pus-filled milk (BGH induced) product, in a bun of pesticide-contaminated GMO wheat. yum.

Of course, a pigs' rectal lining filled with unsaleable, nitrate treated offal sounds good now, too...

Two billion people can't be wrong.

Ian Campbell
Ian Campbell

You have a bug farm? Don't start eating bugs, Mike. Please. For me. Think of your mom.

Ted Langford
Ted Langford

@Hermod Wiborg @Soopreem Whitey  an animal specimen of no definable type or breed.  Like me.  I'm Dutch/Irish and English/German.  Some of the asian back-country people are probably the most "pure-breed" people.  Eskimos for sure, they don't interbreed with other races.

Ian Campbell
Ian Campbell

Western cultures have never eaten bugs, dating back to the Romans finding insects disgusting. Do your reading, Nate Jones. It's not from brainwashing. If I'm in a country where everyone eats bugs it just means I have been kidnapped or human-trafficked.

Share

Feed the World

  • How to Feed Our Growing Planet

    How to Feed Our Growing Planet

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

Latest From Nat Geo

See more photos »

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »