The Bug Bang Theory: Insects in X Parts
I am fascinated by insects, they have become metaphor for survival and intrigue. They are enigmatic, surreptitious, ubiquitous, eternal and adaptable. The Bug Bang Theory aims to create space to consider the insect, with appreciation and respect. Humble down, friends, this is just ten parts of a never-ending story.
The first time I ever intentionally ate an insect was with Justin, a fynbos farmer outside his home in Hopefield, 130km north of Cape Town. It was a hot summer, dry and dusty, heat packing. Typical West Coast summer. The termites were in a deep hustle, very busy going about termite culture, orderly, in tune, in time, almost institutionalised. I wonder if they are wondering about me. I remember a moment when I was 8 years old and my baby sister was deep in thought, lying down with baby fat fingers learning to grasp. She'd pluck at ants and put them in her mouth. It was entrancing, how entranced she was, the inherent knowledge this new person had to see these tiny insects and to instinctively put them in her mouth. It took a moment to shake out of it and call my mother. Ew gross, eating ants must not be a good idea, surely. I realise now that in that shocking moment where she was quickly picked up away from her ants, her face brushed off of grass and ant, her new brain must have computed this as a food truth, ants must not be for eating. I know better now of course, it's taken a few years to unlearn and relearn food truths. The True Meaning of Edible. Many insects are of course edible and are an abundant food source. It depends on their habitat and diet, this that eat poisonous plants may concentrate the phytotoxins which make them inedible and even toxic to some other animals consuming them, like us.
There are specific ways insects are harvested. Pedro’s mother lives in the Cederberg, just outside of Clanwillam, she harvests the termites on the north side of their anthill (termites also known as White Ants). They’re roasted until they’re crisp, with the consistency of crunchy crispy fat and, soft-ish on the inside. Not quite the same as pulling them out of a hole in the dusty ground like Justin and I did that afternoon in Hopefield. Eating live termites, one crunch to kill, then chew.
I'm writing this in flight, I can see what the tops of clouds look like and just how big the sky is. I also imagine the cars down there being obedient ants, conforming to the gray lines that divide the land. Considering ants, they must see us as giants but never seem fearful of us. Often it's the other way around, imagining them crawling all over you and getting into your insides. Fall asleep under a tree in a village in Gutu, Zimbabwe or a dorpie in Namaqualand, South Africa and they will find you and bite you. The tenderly named balbyters are especially veracious, the stuff of nightmares, they don’t mind sacrificing themselves to crawl up your legs and bite you on your eggs. Back to eating them though, ants can be delicious. Raw*, their flavour profiles range from different citrus notes (sweet to sour to tart) to meaty or the strongest violet perfume, overwhelming your mouth and making your breath purple. Cooked, their flavours become nutty, smokey delciousness. Yet these flavour variations can be found within the same nest or within the same species, some even taste of nothing.
As Infinitely Abundant
Insects come in all adaptations, colours, hairiness, shapes and sizes. They are ubiquitous and hold the broadest known biodiversity within all organisms of the planet.
They are the mortar to our ecosystem bricks, there are so many more species than what we have studied or have come to know. It reminds me of the way we see the universe, while there is so much to know and discover, the vast unknown continues to unravel, never to be caught up. Their rate of adaptation to change, whether internally or environmentally, is very rapid which is due to their size and their short life stages. They adapt even to the intensive agricultural chemicals that aim to annihilate them in the first place.
Time in insect is much faster than human time, so much more is happening in a short amount of time. As Pia Adderson, Senior Lecturer on Insect Diversity at the University of Stellenbosch says, “that is why insects can become resistant to insecticides so quickly. The housefly developed resistance to the insecticide DDT in 1947 eight years after it was developed for the first time. Today, insecticide resistance is developing much faster due to the large variety of chemistry that insects are exposed to providing increasing selection pressures.”** Insects epitomise the concept of change; their bodies change within their lifetimes and within co-evolution of their species, they go through instars and metamorphosis while you are wondering which car to buy or sitting and having your hair cut. There are even some species whose body function shange completely, spending all of their youth eating and then having no mouth function at adult stage. Insects are certainly the most exemplary examples of superheroes, if Nature were ever to start a comic book series.
Ant-Man is legit; Let’s face it, insect superpowers would get you super far if it’s about dealing with survival. In terms of fighting crime though, it has its place, say if there were Ant-Men as opposed to just Ant-Man. Best thing about the movie was its appropriate portrayal of insects. Ant-Man harnesses the superpower of Thiriokinesis, calling ants to his aid and able to manipulate them for the cause, to gather in their numbers or do a deed. He’s got other superpowers too but that’s probably the best one he has, and he can do that without being Ant-Man. Within the realms of Hollywood media, insects are generally portrayed as cutesy, animated in children’s movies or represented as terrifying in Horror movies, the killer insects perpetuating the fears that already persist.
My mother would say I was not allowed to bring any plants home because they would bring insects, I think she considered them dirty, now she tolerates them more. Entophobia is real though, the phobia my mother has around hygiene is not necessarily unfounded but becomes confounded in these days of Antibiotica, the Age of Antibiotics. Insects are fastidious and meticulous and these days of living in Capitalisma brings about contaminants, pollutants and disease, they may become vectors for the nasties. Perhaps it’s also their size and the way they move, the memories of balbyters having no fear.
As Darwin says, “From the small size of insects, we are apt to undervalue their appearance. If we could imagine a male Chalcosoma with its polished, bronzed coat of mail, and vast complex horns, magnified to the size of a horse or even of a dog, it would be one of the most imposing animals in the world.”***
To reiterate: insects come in all adaptations, colours, hairiness, shapes and sizes. They are extraordinary in their ability to simply vanish in order to survive. They camouflage very well such as with loopers who are able to ‘become’ twigs, or moths resembling leaf litter or granite, disappearing from plain sight. It may seem that invisibility is an ultimate insect superpower.
From a Plague to an Abundance
Due to a cold winter followed by a hot summer, crickets (Gryllus campestris) had a population explosion and swarmed the streets and beaches of Cape Town and beyond. They were in the putt-putt courses and in the houses, from Misty Cliffs holiday homes to Mitchell’s Plain and Muizenberg, all the way down to Gordons Bay. The people were going crazy, crickets became like cockroaches overnight, serious entophobia electrifying the city. Even in the inner city, where I live and where I travel but they evaded me. I was obsessed but in disbelief. It got me thinking about why the idea of a plague caught on so well. Ye olde Holy Book describes the plague of locusts as direct punishment for disbelief. Locusts are delicious though, and if the Pharaoh and his people were shrewd about it, they could've harvested and made a lot of locust flour.
I had to travel out of the city and as I boarded a plane, there they were, FINALLY, hundreds of them. Hundreds. All over the platform, clustered under the pillars and huddled around the buildings. "As soon as I come back I’ma find em, collect em, turn this plague into an opportunity of abundance."
Holy moly, kramats en (kr)i(k)ets
Finally the moment has come, car packed: butterfly net, tupperware, bags, here we go.
Dimitri fetches me and we head to the Kramat Festival, other side of Mitchell’s Plain. No crickets yet. There are stands all around with Cape Malay foods, sweets, preserves and typical funfair toys and games. A stage is set up for performance, the melodies and harmonies of the Cape Malay choirs and ritualistic ratib. The ratib started up and we found a seat under the banners. Men wielding glistening (fake) swords, emulating the styles of the past, swords slicing (not really) tongues and hitting arms, the music crescendoing, gathering a trance state (that doesn’t come), all show, all glory.
It got colder and I look up to watch the wind lick the banners that blow and blow. Crickets! Not a lot but definitely more than usual. They would fly around us, I’d grab one and hold onto it, ashamed that someone had seen me not kill it or not dispose of it. So I just held it but of course it bit me. So I stuffed it into the bag. Caught another one that was stuck on a lady’s back. This one flew against my face. Stuff into bag. Should we eat one? They’re so big! No, let’s freeze them first. I go to check how many I have and one flies out quickly. Oh dear, this is going to be difficult. I check again only to see that one has eaten through the bag. We gotta up our game, these guys are intelligent. We grab a plastic bottle and put the remainder in, easy to put them in without losing any.
We head from the event and head down towards Strand. We go to the beach because that’s where everyone says the crickets are. Not a cricket in sight. Trying not to be despondent but it really feels like they know we’re coming to hunt them.
We drive through to Gordon’s Bay, not a cricket in site, not on the beach, not on the streets. We drive up, thinking perhaps they are wanting to go closer to the lights right, they seem to be attracted to light. So we head up to the top ridge where the huge glowing Crucifix stands above the settlement. There’s gotta be at least a few. We get there and not even one. Forlorn I stand defeated under the Crucifix, and put out the plea, “Oh baby Jesus, please oh please, can you illuminate a cricket for me? You know this is a political point, right? You know we need to change these peoples pespectives about this plague, about the food they eat, the entire system has usurped us and made us zombies to consumption. I know you know The Book is actually talking about alternative food sources right? Oh please baby Jesus.” With one sigh I look down at my shoes and then turn around and face the reality… and whaddya know, a cricket! A whole one! Brown backed walking casually past me! I caught it, thanked baby Jesus and the cricket and dropped it into the bottle. We found a few more and headed down to a restaurant to celebrate. We drove back to town relieved and triumphant. How fitting this happening on Easter, Christ got my back.
Few days later I mission through to Muizenberg, Farah and Gary assure me Muizenberg is teeming with crickets. I get there and of course they are nowhere to be found. We decide to go for a walk to find them, we head down the road toward the beach. Walking along there's not a cricket in sight so we head to the waterways, maybe crickets don't like sand. Armed with a net and two bottles (prepared!), eagle eyes scanning for moving creatures I finally spot some but they evade me. Do they know my intentions? Do they sense I am hunting them to eat them? The hunters mind must attune to the prey, must lock in and preempt every move and every thought. How could I assume they couldn't hear me? The idea of the hunter, having a different, new awareness of the rustle of fallen leaves, actually noticing the dragonflies and damselflies zip by, the way the senses focus towards them, you see them softly land. Channel your inner chameleon, zzzzzzip. Eventually we realised our tactic was wrong; we needed to use Farah as bait because she hates them (“…ugh, they are cockroaches”), thus they do not see her as a threat and they actually approach her. So we all changed our mindset and that’s when they began to appear.
Being crickets, its easy to find the direction they’re in because of the song they sing. Crickets - the string section of the insect orchestra. They don’t really sing, they stridulate, meaning to rub one part of their body against the other. Approaching them, they sense you and keep very quiet. You can tiptoe, you can even grow wings and hover off the ground so they feel no vibration and hear no sound and they will stop. I tried time and again to ambush but they would always evade me. One time I actually found one to be in a drain but of course decided that hygiene must trump quantity, even though he was very busy chirping away in the safety of his drain, singing the song of his ancestors, the same song, this tiny fiddler. Cicadas sing using an entirely different apparatus and are known as the drummers of the insect world. Using their hollow abdomen, they contract a series of muscles which shift a larger membrane known as the drumhead. It’s the passing of wind through the chamber and the movement of the drumhead by the muscles that create such sound, the sound that happens in chorus. Sometimes a late bloomer will emerge after the chorus has sung and beat his hi-hat to an audience of none.****
Back in Muizenberg, we play putt-putt to ease the time and find a reason to be outside. The crickets are definitely around but few and far between. There’s one, right there, I watch it turn behind the putt-putt rise, I go behind to follow it and *poof* nothing, its gone. There is no trace of him. He did not run, he did not fly, he did not scurry into a hole. This of course means he has gone into another dimension or has utilised his Invisibility superpower that I have yet to learn how to master.
Cricket Lobola (aka mas kahwin aka mahr aka dowry)
Oh, man. The decorated cricket has a way, he woos the female, brings her a dowry of a gel-like protein-rich sac that is attached to the spermathophores which will eventually release the sperm. Such slick evolution, so romantic. Just read this article on DW.com about research done at the Max-Planck-Institute for chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany by researcher Yannick Pauchet. Dr Pauchet's research is focused on insect digestive systems and he may indeed be the single coolest man alive.
Stocking an Apocalypse Pantry
I’d given a talk about Indigenous Food Revival where a new friend (shaataat honorary Apocalypto Nic Grobler) had heard me sing the song of insects as edible. He connected me to then confection demiurge, Heather (now Apocalypta extraordinaire). Heather needed insects quick, to enrobe in chocolate and play with flavours - like bacon on waffles, so crickets and chocolate. It must be said that the older we get, the more we must be encouraged to play with our food. The crickets were blanched in boiling water before being roasted for 20 minutes. They were spiced and enrobed in dark chocolate, sprinkled with smoked salt and paprika, chilli or rose or cinnamon and some set in chocolate bars. It was especially auspicious because these were the last 9 crickets and 2 grasshoppers left of the seasons hunt, the cricket season we will never forget. That night in the confectioner’s bunker, the beginning of the kind of foodstuffs you’d find in our Apocalypse Pantry. No fear. Not even of actual death.
* Of course one must cook ants and all insects if one were to eat them, never raw, always within cooked parameters. Insects may be parasite and disease vectors and the author shall not be held liable for any Brave Barry’s allergic reaction, parasite implication or nausea. Shellfish allergies predispose you to insect allergies. These tales are anecdotal and while true, I have superpowers.
*** Darwin, C. (1871). The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. UK: John Murray Publishers.
**** Farb, P. (1964). LIFE Nature Library; The Insects. Netherlands: Time Inc.
A Recipe Ode to The Bug Bang Theory
This is the kind of thing that titillates people, they want the gory but they also want to be pleasantly surprised. It is always then important that we 'package' entomophagy into Indigenous Food Revival, it is not exclusive but a part of a bigger purpose. The first time Heather and I worked together was for those dark chocolate enrobed insects, here's the recipe as she wrote it, featured in a magazine then sold to another magazine without our knowledge ("But bahbz, so great for exposure!" Nope, we're ok, we'll take the word rate for filling in your magazine page instead thanks!). The relationship with mainstream (corporate) media is a whole other article but it is not for media to assume that we all need the coverage (nor want it) as they present it. We have learnt our lesson.
Ingredients for Dark Chocolate Cinnamon, Chilli and Smoked Salt Crickets
- Rustle yourself up some crickets (either by crawling on your belly in tall grass with a microscopic bow and arrow or ordering a box full from an amphibian feed supplier or pet store)
- Kill 'em all. The method of least squeemishness is waiting until they are asleep (crickets sleep during the night) and popping them into a very cold freezer, they will depart the world dreaming.
- To crisp them up after freezing, remove from freezer and leave them uncovered at room temp to allow any condensation that may have occurred to evaporate. No they will not come back to life once they thaw out and wreak a zombie cricket apocalypse on your kitchen.
- Place in a zip lock bag with your preferred spice blend- chilli and cinnamon is lovely but you are about to eat a bug so you may as well start getting adventurous now. Shake until they are well coated.
- Space them out on a roasting pan and bake at 160; the lower baking temp allows for them to roast through completely without burning the outside and undercooking the inside.
- There will be popping sounds as their exoskeletons heat and open, but Colour deepening is also an indicator of a nice thorough roast. Best taste to test.
- Once roasted to crispy little pork rind-esque textured critters, let sit until cool at room temperature.
- Temper dark chocolate by melting in a Bain Marie until 50°C, then cooling to 27°C and reheating until 32°C.
- Using a fork, dip crickets in chocolate and place on wax paper. Before chocolate sets, sprinkle with flaked salt (if using chilli/cinnamon combo use smoked salt). Allow an hour to set in a cool room (preferred) or in a sealed Tupperware in the fridge.