What’s the best thing about edible insects? There are just so many different varieties. Obviously, not everyone is going to agree on them all, but once your door to entomophagy (eating insects) finally opens, the choice is just mind-blowing — it would be near impossible to sample the full variety of flavours on offer in a single lifetime: there are ants that taste of citrus, nutty crickets, arachnids like soft-shell crab, and even grubs that resemble bacon!
Yde Jongema from the Department of Entomology at Wageningen University compiled an exhaustive edible insects list of 2,040 species from across the world, a small selection of which are shown in the list below. The largest group of insects eaten worldwide is the Order Coleoptera, or the beetles and weevils, at around 31% of the total number of recorded edible species. Caterpillars are of the Order Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), and true bugs here, refers to the Order Hemiptera, including things like cicadas, stink bugs and giant water bugs.
Edible Insects List
So here’s our list of 50 of the best / most interesting edible bugs out there. This is by no means as thorough a collection as Jongema’s research, and several groups like ants or grasshoppers are lumped together due to the sheer number in each, but hopefully you get an idea of the huge variety on offer. Caveat: I use the terms insects to refer to arthropods and annelids, so forgive the generalisation. Image credits and references are at the end. But first, I couldn’t resist putting this video in. Enjoy!
Also known as an Agave Worm, the Agave Snout Weevil (Scyphophorus acupunctatus) is a type of beetle, but is often confused with caterpillars of a butterfly (Aegiale hesperiaris) and a moth (Hypopta agavis). All three species feed on agave plants and can be found as proof of quality in tequila and mezcal bottles. They are eaten fried and are even sold canned in Mexico.
There are a whole range of ants eaten across the world, from honeypot ants (Camponotus inflatus) in Australia to green tree ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) in China, India and Thailand, carpenter ants (Camponotus spp.) in Indonesia and the Philippines, and weaver ants (Oecophylla longinoda) in the Congo. Leafcutter ants (Atta spp.) in Colombia and Brazil taste like a bacon-pistachio fusion and the lemon ants (Myrmelachista schumanni) of the Amazon are named after their citrus taste.
Aphids (Aphididae gen.) are more of a source of liquid than food since all they really eat is plant sap, sucked up directly from the plant’s phloem with their syphons. They leave behind a sugary honeydew which is exploited by people in Mexico and the Middle East, clearly taking after ants, some of which are famous for herding and protecting their collections of aphids. Aphid honeydew can taste either bitter or sweet depending on the plants on which they feed.
Bagworms are pretty strange creatures. They are actually caterpillars of the bagworm moth (Psychidae gen.) and they build protective casings around themselves from twigs and leaves. Their larvae are eaten in Mexico and Equatorial Africa, and their pupae, called fangalabola in Madagascar, are harvested en masse as a delicacy.
Bamboo worms, or bamboo borers, are grass moth larvae (Omphisa fuscidentalis) that feed on bamboo pulp in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and parts of China. It’s called rot duan, or express train, in Thai due to its shape and can be found at almost every street food vendor in the country. It’s sometimes confused with larvae of the wood-boring beetle (Dinoderus minutus), another bamboo pest, but these are not as popular as food.
Honey bee drones (Apis spp.) are eaten in China and are also used as traditional medicine, but by far the most popular way to eat them throughout the world is in their larval form. Bee larvae, either from honey bees, bumblebees (Bombus spp.), carpenter bees (Xylocopa spp.) or stingless bees (Trigona spp.), are eaten in many countries throughout Asia, central and southern Africa, South America, and the West Indies. It’s hardly surprising that they are said to taste like creamy royal jelly, considering that’s all they are fed!
Eaten as both larvae and adults in Ecuador, Mexico and Venezuela, cactus weevils (Metamasius spp.) are from the same family as agave weevils and feed on cacti throughout their life cycle. The are seen as pests because the larvae bore through the cactus and the adults eat the plant itself, often killing it.
Centipedes are one of many edible insects you can find as you explore Beijing’s night markets. They are more of a box to tick for the adventurous eater than anything else, thanks to their scary appearance. Unfortunately, those street food stalls tend to fry them to a crisp so you don’t end up tasting much more that what can only be described as dried spaghetti sticks.
Commonly eaten by the Aboriginal people of Australia, Christmas beetle (Anoplognathus viridiaeneus) larvae had the attention of the Western world since 1842, when Frederick Hope wrote on their consumption, “Should this opinion be further substantiated, and the food prove palatable and wholesome, the settler, from policy, should patronize as food these dainties which are so highly prized by the wild Australian, and thereby secure the crops of future years by feeding on the insects capable of destroying them…”.
One of the few insects eaten in the US, cicadas (Magicicada spp.) are said to be most tender and tasty just after they molt. They are pretty nutty so folks from Nashville have them as sweet treats cooked with buttermilk. You’ll also find them eaten in China, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Mexico and India.
Cochineals are scale bugs from the Superfamily Coccoidea that suck the sap from prickly pear cacti. Although variants are eaten in China and the Canary Islands, Cochineals are more famous for being the source of red carmine dye. This dye has supposedly been used in the Americas since the 10th century and until recently, was used by Starbucks to colour their Frappuccinos. It is still found in a whole load of foods, from jams and cakes to sausages and marinades.
These may be the epitome of filth as far as the Western mind is concerned, but when they are fed only on salad and fruit, they can actually taste pretty good and are quite healthy. Just ask a few Australian, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Malay, Mexican or Brazilian entomophagists!
Eaten throughout the world in far too many countries to list here, crickets and their various varieties are probably the most commonly used edible insect. They can be fried, boiled, sautéed, and when roasted, taste like roast nuts. They are also said to take on the flavour of their food, a characteristic being exploited by Entomo Farms in Canada to make their crickets taste of apple and cinnamon. The cricket industry is taking off in North America, but is still nowhere near the 20,000 or so registered cricket farms in Thailand.
Diving beetles (Dytiscidae gen.) are eaten throughout East and Southeast Asia. In China, they are thought to have an anti-diuretic effect and are eaten not out of nutritional necessity (although they are healthy, as most insects are), but out of cultural tradition, mostly in more affluent areas. In fact, it’s a common misconception that insects are only eaten by the poor since many species cost much more than traditional meat.
Dragonflies & Damselflies
Dragonflies and their close relatives, damselflies, make up the Order Odonata and are eaten throughout the world, from Central Africa and South America to Asia and Papua New Guinea. They are eaten either in adult or laval form (pictured). Indonesians collect the adults in flight by waving a sticky reed around in the air.
“Slimy, yet satisfying!” Pumbaa was right on the money because earthworms are full of nutrients. The downside is that they are also full of dirt so need to be purged before they can be eaten. They are often pre-dried to get rid of the sliminess, and then used as an ingredient in a stirfry, for example.
Emperor moth caterpillars (from the Saturniidae family) are actually quite a common edible insect in food throughout the African continent. They have a number of genera and can be found in most African markets. Unsurprisingly (and a growing trend in the article), they are also eaten in Mexico.
Rich in fatty acids to the same extent as in some fish oils, pupae of the common house fly (Musca spp.) are said to taste “sort of like black pudding”. That’s according to David Gracer, a US entomophagy advocate and TEDx speaker on the subject. Another fly of interest is the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens). Jason Drew, founder of AgriProtein in South Africa and another TED speaker, uses these and a range of other fly larvae to process organic food waste into livestock feed, insect oils and fertilisers.
Giant Water Bugs
Although also eaten in Mexico, Venezuela, China, Japan and the Congo, these toe-biters as they are referred to in Thailand, are probably most famous with tourists there as they are among the most fearsome looking of street food options. Some say they are like clam-flavoured potatoes and others like a salty, fruity taste. Thai locals like them best pregnant and full of creamy eggs!
Also known as banana spiders in the US, golden orb-weavers (Nephilidae gen.) have around 75 discovered species and are spread throughout the tropics and southern hemisphere. These are the spiders you can imagine walking face-first into on a jungle trek and they are large enough to catch and eat bats. That said, they’re supposed to be delicious — a bit like peanut butter when fried.
Like crickets, and also from the Order Orthoptera, grasshoppers are eaten almost everywhere in orange on that map I showed you above. Not all grasshoppers are edible since there are thousands of species, but perhaps the most thoroughly exploited are Sphenarium spp., called Chapulines in Mexico. They are most often toasted on a clay stove with lime, garlic, salt and agave worm extract to add in more complex flavours.
Essentially wasps on steroids, hornets are from the same family (Vespidae) as their smaller counterparts. They are eaten in either larval or pupal form in China, Japan, and across Southeast Asia.
Hornworms are the larvae of hummingbird moths and are a prominent pest species for the commercial plants they eat. The tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta) is found throughout North America, and requires a starvation period before you eat it due to its ability to bioaccumulate and secrete nicotine. The closely related tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata) is said to be like a green tomato / shrimp / crab combo in taste.
Another spider for good measure. Huntsman spiders (Sparassidae gen.) are composed of over a thousand species and are found everywhere there’s a temperate of tropical climate. These spiders can reach up to 12 inches in leg span and don’t build webs, but instead chase down their prey at speed, hence the name. Indonesians and Venezuelans call them food (amongst other names, I’m sure).
The Buprestidae family, or the jewel beetles, are a massive group of around 15,000 species. Their larvae bore through wood, and some even through living trees, making them a serious pest problem. They are eaten throughout Africa, Southeast Asia and China, either as larvae or as adult beetles.
June beetles (Phyllophaga spp.) were traditionally roasted over coals by Native Americans, either as adults or larvae, and are said to taste like buttery walnuts. They are thought to be relatively safe to harvest from the wild as there are no inedible species that look like them in the regions they are found. As always though, harvest with care in areas free of pesticides.
Katydids are better known as bush crickets (Tettigoniidae gen.), but are actually closer relatives of grasshoppers than crickets. Much like these other hopping relatives of theirs, they are eaten pretty much everywhere they’re found: throughout Africa, South America, East and Southeast Asia, India and Papua New Guinea. David Gracer, bug sampler extraordinaire, says that they taste somewhere between chicken, shrimp and croutons.
Yet another insect eaten almost everywhere on our map, locusts, along with grasshoppers, crickets and katydids, are officially acknowledged as fit for human consumption in the Bible (Leviticus 11:22) — probably at least partly responsible for their popularity. They are said to taste somewhere between shrimp and sunflower seeds, and are especially delicious when fed on sesame leaves.
A rather large family of beetles with over 20,000 species, longhorn beetles (Cerambycidae gen.) are named after their antennae, which are sometimes longer than their bodies. One of the most popular edible insect families, longhorns are eaten in almost as many of the same countries that katydids are, but unlike the latter, longhorns are also munched on throughout Oceania.
Much like dragonflies and damselflies, adult mayflies have short lifespans, even shorter in fact than the former two groups; the Order Ephemeroptera to which they belong is from the Greek for short-lived. Collected during their day-long swarms as mating adults, they are eaten in Kenya, Malawi, China and Japan.
Affectionately known to many in the entomophagy community as the gateway bug, mealworms are probably one of the first edible insects people ever try, mainly because they are super easy to raise, they have a great nutrition profile, and they taste really good (if you’re a fan of roasted nuts). They’re not actually worms at all, but are larvae of the darkling beetle (Tenebrio spp.), a small, black, non-biting, flightless beetle about a centimeter long that doesn’t mind crowded spaces and loves the dark — perfect for farming!
Midges & Mosquitos
Both from the fly Order Diptera, midges (Chaoboridae gen. in particular) and mosquitos (Culicidae gen.) are the insects most people would probably describe as the biggest nuisance. That said, East Africans harvest midges by the net-full as they swarm over their many lakes, and Mexicans serve up mosquito eggs in tortillas with lime.
Again, not a worm, but a caterpillar of a particular species of emperor moth (Gonimbrasia belina). I realise emperor moths have already been covered, but their larvae get their own category due to their huge popularity throughout Southern Africa; that and they were my very first introduction to edible insects as a kid growing up there. I don’t quite remember the taste, but people say they’re a bit like biltong (South African jerky) which is amazing!
Packed with nutrition and essential fats, it’s not surprising that palm weevil larvae (Rhynchophorus spp.) are a staple insect throughout the world. They are eaten in China, Central and Western Africa, Southeast Asia, South America and Papua New Guinea. Many folks say they taste of bacon when cooked and the Malaysian dish, Sago Delight, has variations throughout Asia.
Most people are familiar with what adult rhinoceros beetles look like, but here’s one of their larvae. Unsurprisingly, the larvae are more palatable than the hard exoskeletons of the adults so this is what’s most commonly eaten. Widespread throughout the world and extremely nutritious, they are being touted as a significant protein source for impoverished regions in the future. Fun fact: rhino beetles are the strongest known animals (relatively), capable of lifting up to 850 times their own weight!
One of the more intimidating entries in this edible insects list, scorpions taste a little like shrimp with a nutty edge. Anyone who has been around Beijing’s night markets will be familiar with a variety of scorpions on sticks – the large black ones costing a tidy sum for the unsuspecting tourist.
Silkworms come from a range of families, but are all from the butterfly and moth Order Lepidoptera. Most commonly eaten in pupal form, they are a by-product of the silk industry and can be found in street markets in any silk-producing country. In South Korea, China and Japan, the Bombyx mori species is eaten and tastes a bit bland, much like tofu, but many people love them marinated in chili and garlic sauce.
Stag beetles (Lucanidae gen.) get their name from mandibles that the males use for fighting other males around mating time. They are the largest terrestrial insect in Europe, but are not generally on the European menu. They are, however, in Mexico, Ecuador, India, Malaysia, Japan, Papua New Guinea and Madagascar.
Also known as walking sticks, the members of the Phasmatodea family are another group of our true bugs. They’re not a hugely popular edible insect as they are only really eaten to a significant extent in Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, probably because they are said to taste a bit like tree. Hardly surprising, given their diet.
Yet another true bug, stink bugs make up quite a large group of insects that are eaten throughout Southeast Asia, India, South America and Southern Africa. Their flavour varies from bitter to slightly sweet and tangy, and they are often eaten raw because they are known to sometimes survive being cooked!
As is the case with mealworms, superworms (Zophobas spp.) are not worms. They’re actually very closely related to mealworms, also belonging to the Tenebrionidae family. Their taste is quite similar, but I tend to find them quite a bit blander. They are eaten all over, but particularly in Mexico and Venezuela.
A delicacy in Southeast Asia and especially important in the poorer regions of Cambodia, tarantulas are hunted and dug up from their holes to provide a much needed protein source for people that would usually live off not much more that rice. More on the spider hunters of Cambodia can be seen in Stefan Gates’ BBC documentary, Can Eating Insects Save the World? Tarantuals are eaten whole and are said to taste like soft-shell crab.
Termites are loaded with protein and they actually have a full essential amino acid profile. It’s no wonder then that they are eaten throughout the African continent and Southeast Asia. They are harvested straight from the ground or collected when they get their wings and swarm to find mates. Their taste depends on the species – some are nutty and others taste of mint.
If you’re an insect geek, these guys are pretty cool. Tiger beetles (Cicindelinae gen.) are named after the way they hunt as the adults are extremely fast, both on the ground and in the air. Even the larvae are predatory, instead ambushing prey from their burrows, although not stealthy enough to evade Mexicans that collect them for the plate.
Wasps are most commonly eaten in China, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, Australia and the Congo, more often than not in their larval form. They are said to taste earthy and buttery, and according to Emperor Hirohito of early 20th century Japan, they go very well cooked with sugar and soy sauce, served with boiled rice!
Although these look like beetles, we’re dealing with another true bug here, again, eaten mostly in Mexico. Water boatmen (Corixidae gen.), as their name suggests, are aquatic insects that live in ponds and slow streams. Most are vegetarian, which is quite unusual for aquatic bugs. I’ve no idea what they taste like, but my garden pond may answer that question one day.
Not related to true scorpions in any way more than appearance, water scorpions (Nepidae gen.) are actually the last of our true bugs on this list. They are, however, also ferocious ambush predators that will eat anything from insect larvae to tadpoles. You can find them on the menu in Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Madagascar and the Congo.
Waxworms (Pyralidae gen.) are caterpillars of the wax moth, sometimes called bee moths because they live in beehives and eat pretty much everything in there, other than the adult bees. They’re on the menu in China, Japan, Mexico and Brazil. Raised on bran and honey when farmed, Daniella Martin of Girl Meets Bug reckons they taste of a cross between pine nuts and enoki mushrooms. Watch her cook some up here!
Another Australian Aboriginal favourite. Peter Menzel describes Witchetty grubs (Endoxyla leucomochla) in his book, Man Eating Bugs, as “like nut-flavored scrambled eggs and mild mozzarella, wrapped in a phyllo dough pastry”. They are a great find for those foraging for bugs, thanks to their very high protein and fat content.
Woodlice are not insects at all; they are crustaceans, so the term, land shrimp, used by Florence Dunkel in her 2012 TED talk really does apply here. Like lobsters, they turn red when cooked and according to Raymond Day, Edible Bug Farm’s avid survivalist, they do in fact taste of shrimp.
All images used were originally released under a Creative Commons Licence. I would like to thank all of the following photographers for their willingness to share their great work!
Agave Worms: Andy Sadler Ants: D Coetzee Aphids: Gustavo Mazzarollo Bagworm: Niko Malessa Bamboo Worms: Jeremiah Roth Bees: Max Westby Cactus Weevils: Pavel Kirillov Centipedes: Jun-Dai Bates-Kobashigawa Christmas Beetles: John Slaney Cicadas: Xiangrui Huang Cochineals: Cockroach: Squiddles Crickets: Sean Wallace Diving Beetles: Mark Robinson Dragonflies: The Tattooed Tentacle Earthworms: CAFNR Emperor Moth: Benard Dupont
Fly: Anita Gould Giant Water Bugs: Alpha Golden Orb-Weaver: Dick Culbert Grasshoppers: William Neuheisel Hornet: Toshihiro Gamo Hornworm: Brad Smith Huntsman Spider: Bill & Mark Bell Jewel Beetles: Jean & Fred June Beetle: BlueRidgeKitties Katydid: Michael Schmidt Locusts: Hiroshi Yoshinaga Longhorn Beetle: Giovzaid85 Mayflies:Andrés Morya Mealworms: Wm Jas Midge: Joe Lapp Mopane Worms: Happy.apple Palm Weevils: Leo_theonlyone
Rhinoceros Beetle: Philippe Garcelon Scorpions: Jack Zalium Silkworms: Joel Abroad Stag Beetle: Rinaldo R Stick Insect: Blacktulip Stink Bug: Steve Begin Superworm: Brian Gratwicke Tarantulas: Istolethetv Termites: Patrick Randall Tiger Beetle:Jonathan Bliss Wasps: Nigel Marshall Water Boatman: Tom Heller Water Scorpion:Public.Resource.Org Waxworms: Rasbak Witchetty Grub: Nathan Johnson Woodlouse: Mark Robinson
All article references for this piece can be found here, courtesy of Yde Jongema, taxonomist from the Department of Entomology at Wageningen University.
Thanks also go to Daniella Martin from Girl Meets Bug for her edible insects list, which was referred to more than a few times! Her book, Edible: An Adventure into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet, is well worth the read!