This story was originally published in June 2021.
If you like experimenting with bugs in the kitchen, curious foragers can enjoy a feast featuring plenty of insects that you can harvest and enjoy right here in the Pine Tree State.
Despite the backlash from animal rights activists (and some allergic reactions), eating insects has a long history and a continued legacy around the world — one that Americans are just starting to tap into.
“You don’t get any more paleo than eating insects,” said Bill Broadbent, founder of Entosense, Inc. in Lewiston. “This is something that our ancestors have always eaten that we’ve stopped eating. It would make sense that it would be good for us to add to our diets. It’s giving us all sorts of nutrition that you’re not getting in other places.”
New England has a legacy of insect eating, too. Not only is there a history of eating insects in Native American cuisine, Seattle-based author David George Gordon, who is known as “The Bug Chef,” said that carpenter ants got their name because carpenters in New England would eat them to ward off scurvy.
If curiosity isn’t enough to get you eating bugs, there are environmental benefits as well. Edible insects are rich in protein and good fats, high in calcium, iron and zinc and take little farming space or water — especially if you are foraging for them — according to a 2013 report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
The bugs you can eat
In Maine, there are a number of common insects you can forage for food.
Grasshoppers are “one of the most delicious bugs you’re likely to find,” Gordon said. He marinates defrosted grasshoppers in mustard and olive oil, puts them on skewers and barbecues them.
“They’re quite good,” Gordon said. “Probably the closest [comparison in taste] is something like a green pepper. They have a distinctive green taste..”
While you don’t see grasshoppers as much in Maine as in other areas, they can be found in fields with tall grass and caught with a butterfly net, Broadbent said. Grasshoppers, he noted, are particularly popular in Mexico, where they are fried and tossed in a variety of spices for a snack called chapulines. As such, he recommended tossing grasshoppers in garlic, chile and lime or lemon before roasting them.
Another delicious, abundant option for edible insects are ants. Broadbent said that ants have been especially popular among fine dining restaurants experimenting with insects.
“[Ants] don’t really look like an insect when they’re topped on a salad and … they taste great and they have a citrus punch,” Broadbent said. “Very few people dislike them and a lot of chefs are using them instead of lemon and lime.”
To collect ants, push a glass jar into a mound and wait for a swarm to fall in (the ants can’t climb back up the glass sides), Broadbent said. You can also use a sugar cube to attract the ants that you collect.
After freezing, you might want to let them dry in the sun for a few hours, or briefly at low heat in the oven. Then, Gordon said you can sprinkle them on anything, like you might with cracked pepper.
For another unexpected punch of bug flavor, Gordon recommended the stink bug. Foraging for invasive species, like the marmorated stink bug, is “doing the world a favor by getting rid of them,” Gordon said.
“The stink bug has this pheromone, it tastes a little bit like a green apple Jolly Rancher,” Gordon said. “You can just grab them with your hand. I think they’re banking on the fact that people aren’t going to bother them so they’re not fleeing.”
The giant water bug is also delicious and available in Maine, said Andrei Alyokhin, professor of applied entomology at the University of Maine.
“They’re fairly large, maybe between 2 and 3 inches,” Alyokhin said. “You can find them in streams and lakes, sometimes close to shore. They’re attracted to lights.”
June bugs are another easy-to-harvest edible insect that hovers close to lights. Famed chef Andrew Zimmern even ate barbecued June bugs in Maine on a 2008 episode of his television show, “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” on the Travel channel.
“The June bugs make great toppings on things because they’ll keep their shape when you roast them,” Broadbent said.
Gardeners should keep an eye on their tomatoes, too — and not just for fruit. In the edible insect world, tomato hornworms are basically a delicacy.
“They are in general terms thought to be pests but they are quite edible and they’re also large, so they’re fairly conspicuous for people who have tomatoes,” Alyokhin said.
Alyokhin said that he has eaten delicious fried green tomato hornworms. Broadbent recommended boiling them, slicing them into rounds and adding them to salads. Gordon said that he likes to stir fry tomato hornworms after they have been frozen and defrosted.
“The only thing when you’re cooking with hornworms is because there’s moisture inside them and there’s nowhere to go when it fries, so it inflates like a balloon and pops,” Gordon said. “Use a wok so you can roll them in and out of the heat. They’re pretty tasty.”
Before you cook any insects though, they should be humanely killed, Broadbent said. He recommends putting them in the freezer for about an hour. After that, there are a variety of cookbooks that will help you prepare them — including Gordon’s own “The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook.”
Bug foraging rules
When foraging for bugs to eat, there are a few basic rules to follow, for both your protection and the protection of the environment.
First and foremost, if you have shellfish allergies, do not eat bugs. The allergic reaction people get from eating shellfish is caused by the ingestion of a muscle protein called tropomyosin, which is also found in some insects.
Be aware, too, that not all insects taste good. Alyokhin said to avoid brightly colored insects like bees, wasps, ladybugs and some caterpillars. In the same vein, avoid anything hairy (so, no, you cannot eat browntail moth caterpillars).
“These hairs are more like spines,” Alyokhin said. “There is some variation in that but in many cases these hairs are for defense.”
When you are harvesting insects in the wild, make sure you are being respectful of future populations. Broadbent said that the general rules of ethical foraging still apply, though it is on a somewhat different scale for bugs.
“The general rule with things like that is to take a third or a half and leave the rest. It’s a lot harder with bugs,” Broadbent said. “To decimate a population of any type of insect that we’re talking about would take a lot of work.”
Make sure you aren’t harvesting insects anywhere that pesticides are being sprayed.
Finally, Gordon said that, with a few exceptions like ants, you should always cook insects before you eat them.
“You’re not likely to get disease or parasites from eating insects but there is a possibility,” Gordon said. “Cooking it would finish that off.”
If you are concerned about pathogens and still want to try edible bugs, Alyokhin said that you can always purchase mealworms or crickets designated for consumption from a company that produces edible insects.
Most importantly, Gordon said to savor the experience of eating bugs.
“A lot of insects have states and vitamins and minerals that you wouldn’t get elsewhere,” Gordon said. “It’s a great opportunity to be curious. Don’t just focus on, ‘I gotta get me some good eats.’”