insects: the meat of the future?

Did you know that around 2 billion people around the world choose to eat insects as part of their regular diet? The practice of eating insects is called entomophagy (say en-toe-moe-fay-gee) and is most common in tropical areas where larger species can be found all year round.  Around 1900 different species are regularly eaten, including beetles, caterpillars, bees, ants, grasshoppers and crickets. These insects are an important part of people’s diets as they are rich in protein and vital minerals and vitamins. 

Across the world, 90% of people are meat-eaters. Of course, most of the meat eaten comes not from insects but from larger animals such as cows and sheep. With the world’s population set to reach 9 billion by 2050, the huge demand for animal protein is growing all the time.  We are using more and more land to farm animals for food, contributing to potentially catastrophic climate change and biodiversity loss (the variety of different living things found in the environment).

Herd of cattle graze in a pasture near a village/Image credit: World Bank Photo Collection , CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Deforestation / Image credit: World Bank Photo Collection , CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

You may think that eating insects sounds disgusting. Many of us don’t like the idea of munching on a mantis or crunching a cricket but, with rising demand for meat protein, could insects provide a solution for this global problem? 

Insects to the rescue?

At the moment, most insects that are eaten come from the wild but there are lots of good reasons to consider farming insects. 

The demand for meat and dairy products has resulted in more and more land being used for farming, leading to the destruction of many habitats. This is having a devastating effect on our planet’s biodiversity as many plant and animal species have nowhere to thrive and many are now under threat. Farming insects, however, needs much less land and water.  For example, 400 square metres of land are needed to produce just 1 kilogram of beef, but 1 kilogram of crickets can be produced from just 30 square metres. 

Another problem with cattle farming is the production of greenhouse gases. Cows and other large animals produce huge quantities of methane; a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.  At the moment, livestock are responsible for more greenhouse gases than all the cars, planes and other forms of transport in the world. In contrast, most insects don’t produce methane gas as a waste product. 

Of course, it’s not as simple as just switching from farming cows to farming crickets.  What about the millions of farmers around the world who rely on rearing cattle for their living?  What would happen to all the land that is currently being used to farm livestock?  Is it ethical to kill insects for food?  Read on for some suggestions about where to find out more about these issues and debates.

Find out more

If you are interested in finding out more about sustainability of meat production and consumption, including the idea of eating insects, why not:

  • Visit Meat the Future. This exhibition, opening on 28th May 2021 here at Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History, looks at the health, environmental, social and economic impacts of meat and dairy production and consumption, and explores the future of food by examining the findings of the Livestock, Environment and People Project (LEAP).
  • Take a look at these videos and articles which talk more about the issue of sustainability in farming and discuss the pros and cons of eating and farming insects:

Should we eat bugs?  

Arguments against eating insects

What do you think?

We would love to hear what you think on this issue. Do you think farming insects is a good idea? Would you eat a beetle burger? Do you think there are other ways to cut global consumption of meat and dairy products? Let us know you thoughts below or by using the Contact Us page.

Helen Roy’s Favourite Ladybirds

Professor Helen Roy, President of the Royal Entomological Society, tells us about a group of insects that interest her most: ladybirds. Also known as ladybugs, ladybirds are in fact beetles. In this video, Helen shares three of her favourites.

Helen Roy shares her favourite ladybirds

Which ladybirds have you spotted? Can you find any of Helen’s favourites? Do you have a favourite of your own? Let us know in the comments section below, or send us a message via the Contact Us page.

Ladybird images credit: Flickr / Gilles San Martin CC BY-SA 2.0

Your Insect Jokes

A few weeks ago we asked for your insect jokes in our post ‘Why did the insect cross the road?’ and you didn’t disappoint us! Here is our top ten selection of the best of your jokes, including those you sent to us online, or that we heard on our visits to schools.

I have a joke about fireflies that most people say is brilliant! alyiakerenina

What do you call a fly with no wings? A walk! Year 3 Great Horwood School

Why are entomologists like spies? They’re always looking for bugs! Anonymous

Why did the boy throw butter into the air? He wanted to see butterfly! Year 4 Bearbrook Primary School

Where do you take a sick hornet? Waspital! anonymous

How do fire flies start a race? Ready, steady, glow! Year 4 Cadmore End Primary School

What is red and black and lives underwater? A ladybird in a submarine! Anonymous

What happened to the Queen bee when she kissed a frog? She broke out in hives! Kerri

Which insect is best with numbers? An account-ant! Anonymous

What do you say to a naughty bumble bee? Bee-hive yourself! Year 5 Thameside Primary School

Think you can do better? We’d love to hear more jokes. Just enter them in the comments below, or send them using the form on the Contact Us page.

Insect super powers: dodging death

Being near the bottom of the food chain isn’t ideal.  Insects have many different predators including lots from the insect world itself and that’s before you’ve even started to take account of all the birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and mammals that consider insects an important part of their diet.  So how do insects dodge death and defend themselves against predators?  Read on to find out about some cunning techniques and surprising solutions!

Chemical Warfare

Did you know that some species of ladybird have clever, and some rather disgusting, ways of deterring predators?  Not only do many species display the bright warning colours of red or yellow combined with black, but some can exude a stinky yellow liquid through their knees when in danger.  This is called reflex bleeding because the liquid is made from their blood.  You may have noticed it if you have picked up a ladybird and seen yellow spots of liquid on your hand. 

Other insects can squirt noxious fluids into the air when they feel threatened.  Wood Ants, for example, spray formic acid.  The incredible Bombardier Beetle (seen here on the right) can combine two different liquids stored in separate chambers in its abdomen to produce a boiling hot chemical that literally explodes from the beetle’s rear. I wouldn’t like to be on the receiving end of that!

Cloaks of Invisibility

For many insects, protection from predators is all about not being seen.  There are some amazing masters of disguise whose camouflage is so good we have trouble spotting them.  For example, many moths are almost invisible when resting in their preferred habitat such as on the bark of trees.

How many insects can you spot?

Another form of camouflage is to disguise yourself as an object of no importance, such as a twig.  When threatened, this beetle (Platyrhinous resinosis) rolls over, draws in its legs, lies very still and looks just like a bird poo!

Platyrhinous resinosis

Masters of Disguise

If you can’t blend in with your background, you could always be a master of mimicry and pretend to be something really scary! This Hornet Clearwing is not actually a hornet with a powerful sting. It’s a moth, but by mimicking the colours and form of the hornet it will manage to put off many a hungry bird!

Serious Weaponry

Some insects have formidable weapons that may serve to fend off rivals, help catch prey and deter predators.  Look at the ferocious jaws of the Stag Beetle or the sharp pincers, or forceps, at the rear end of the earwig.  They might make you think twice before tackling these guys! In fact, the jaws of the Stag Beetle are all show!  They are actually quite weak and may even prevent Stag Beetles from feeding in their adult form. The fact that they exist at all just shows how effective they are at warding off predators.

Let us know if you have a favourite story about how insects dodge death and survive in a world full of predators.

The Dark Edged Bee-Fly

The Dark edged bee-fly, Bombylius major, is one of the most conspicuous insects to emerge in early spring because of it’s large size and ability to hover in mid air. It is the most common species of Bee-fly in the UK and can be seen in woodland, heathlands, grasslands and gardens from February to June. It has several other common names known as the ‘dark bordered beefly’ or ‘large beefly’. They get these names from their large size and from the dark wavy leading edge of their wings.

Dark edged bee-fly, Bobylius major. Image credit – Flickr / Jean-Marie Hamon, CC BY-SA 3.0

So, is it a bee or a fly? The single pair of wings tells us that this is a fly. A bee would have two pairs of wings. Why would a fly evolve to look like a bee? We think this is to trick predators into thinking it is more dangerous than it is. It certainly works with humans: many people think that the beefly has a large ‘sting’ at the front. In fact, this is just part the fly’s mouth and is quite harmless. The proboscis is adapted to drink the nectar from a wide variety of early-flowering plants. These include primrose, bugle, blackthorn, and cherry blossom. Because they transfer pollen from flower to flower, they are important pollinators in the spring.

Bee-fly feeding on nectar. You can see pollen grains on its legs and body. Image credit – Flickr / Robert Ault, CC BY-SA 2.0

Bee-flies may be harmless to humans but their life cycle is a bit grisly! Females lay their eggs in the underground nests of solitary mining bee nests such as Clarke’s Mining Bee (Andrena clarkella), the Early mining bee (Andrena haemarrohoa), and the Tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva). They collect sand or dust at the end of their abdomens. This sticks to their eggs, making them heavier. It may also help camouflage them. They then flick their eggs into the nest burrows of the bees. Once the eggs hatch, the bee-fly larvae crawl further down the burrows and wait for the bee larvae to grow until they are near full size. The bee-fly larvae then begin to feed on the mining bee larvae, drinking their body fluids and gradually eating them alive. When they have finished feeding, the bee-fly larvae then pupate and overwinter inside the burrow. The next generation of adult bee-flies then emerges from the burrows the following spring.

The Twany mining bee, Andrena fulva. Bee-fly larvae feed on its larvae. Image credit – Flickr / Line Sabroe, CC BY 2.0

You might think that means that bee-flies are bad for other bee species, but this is relationship evolved a long time ago and is part of the complex interaction between living things that exists in all ecosystems. Bee flies do feed on individual mining bees, but there is no evidence that they are harmful to bee populations.

If you spot a bee-fly this spring or summer, you can add your sighting to the national database by completing a simple online form on the Bee-fly Watch website. Why not let us know too? You could even take a picture or draw a picture. Who will spot the first bee-fly of 2021?