Friday, January 25, 2013

Bon appetit!

Are you planning on coming to the Beautiful Beasts / Bugs Outside the Box opening a week from today? Bring your appetites, if you are! I know we've mentioned eating bugs before, and Miridae has previously written an informative post about all of the benefits of eating bugs: high in protein, low in fat, and high in environmental sustainability. However, aside from the worm at the bottom of a bottle of tequila, it's not terribly common to see insects cooked and prepared as food for us.

Disclaimer: if you have a seafood allergy, you probably shouldn't try eating insects. Your allergy could be a reaction to the chitin found in shrimp, lobsters, and crayfish. Insects are made up of this same chitin. Just admire them from afar, if this is the case for you.

At this opening, you will have the opportunity to sample ants, meal worms, and crickets if you so desire. You might be wondering how on earth these are prepared, and actually there are many ways that you can prepare insects for consumption. Other countries are a bit ahead of us when it comes to the association between bugs and eating - it's a very common, accepted food staple in areas of Asia and Africa. Here, we're still pretty hedgy on the idea, and it's too bad - especially when you consider that so many people are trying to incorporate high protein/low fat foods into their diets.

Insects as food in Thailand

My first run-in with some cooked insects came at an entomology conference. Among the buffet of chicken sticks, artichoke dip, and cheese, there were a few tureens of salt-and-pepper roasted crickets, as well as some roasted larvae. However, at this point, it's time I confessed: I actually did not sample these insects. I know, I know, I'm disappointed in myself too. But this time, I'll walk the walk at the opening, and actually give these a whirl.

Salt and pepper roasted crickets. See, it's all garnished with lettuce and everything!

Another way to enjoy insects is to deep fry them. As we've seen at the state fair, one can deep fry practically anything and people will eat it, so that method doesn't seem as big of a stretch to me. In fact, I'll bet deep-fried insects could be a hit at the fair. These are fried silkworm pupae on a stick.

 If you've got a sweet tooth, perhaps you'll enjoy this ant lollipop.

Personally, I'm downright looking forward to trying the chocolate-covered ants at the opening. Are you game?

Happy Friday!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Insect Products Preview

    Continuing to preview some of the topics tables that will be set up for the Bugs Outside the Box and Beautiful Beasts Opening on February 1st, we will talk about insect products that are used by humans. One product that will (hopefully) be featured is shellac, which is produced by the female lac bug.
Lac bug. Image from
    If you work with furniture or antique furniture, you might be aware of the varnish known as shellac. Its made up of glassy flakes that when mixed with alcohol (usually ethyl alcohol) forms a liquid that can coat wood. The coating can color the wood (usually brown or orange) and provides a protective sealant when its dry against moisture and damage. Natural shellac is hard to find these days because it has been all but replaced by synthetic varnishes and plastics, but the history about the original is pretty interesting.
   Shellac comes from the secretions on the outside of the female scale insect, the lac bug Kerria lacca. This bug is found primarily in India where it can coat trees in with secretions when they get in very large numbers. Their natural reddish color was also used for a red pigment in cosmetics as well, but the insects were primarily used to get the coating for the varnish. The varnish was even used in paintings for color or protection. Colors for shellac ranged from yellow to brown or red, and depended on the insect's food sources.
Live lac bugs on a branch. Image from
   Finding shellac today is fairly difficult these days, and even though there are testimonials about how its still a great finish compared to synthetics, its usually restricted to antique dealers that work with furniture. Other uses of shellac have been found, though, including medications and other coatings. Bug Girl, who blogs about insects as well, has this great blog post about shellac and its use in candy coatings! Shellac in its dried form is shown on the left. The orange shellac on the left was often used on pine-wood paneling in the Southern United States, and the reddish shellac on the right was used as another color type.
     Hopefully I can track some down so that we can have some for the opening and to show another neat way insect products have benefited our society! Check out the video to learn more :)

Friday, January 11, 2013

Come hear the Buzz

    In a few weeks we'll be opening our Bugs Outside of the Box and Beautiful Beasts exhibitions at the museum, which will focus on insects and spiders, respectively. The opening of the galleries for the exhibits on February 1st will be a huge event, featuring the Bug Chicks and different tables of insect-themed topics, including insect products and foods. As a preview to one of the tables that will also be featured, are Insect Sounds. I'm going to talk about one group of insects that produce some of the loudest, the cicadas.
    Many insects, like humans, use sound to communicate with each other. Some of the most prominent examples that we can hear are cicadas during the summer days, and katydids during the summer nights. Cicadas in particular are some of the loudest insects on earth. Some cicadas can get up to 90 decibels with their humming, which is the volume range between heavy traffic and a NYC subway. Get next to a colony of them, and you can really get a buzz. They produce the sound using their tymbal, which is like a drum that they vibrate rapidly and amplify the sound with.
      Growing up in Virginia, I remember my first experience with being next to a huge colony of them, and they were part of a special group of cicadas, the periodical cicadas (Magicicada septendecim). I was about 5 years old, and it was the first time I was around when Brood X made their appearance in the Northern Virginia area.
Magicicada septendecim, Periodical Cicada face. From
 The periodical cicadas are special because they only emerge from the ground every 13 to 17 years, with Brood X coming out every 17. They spend most of their life feeding on the roots of trees, and nobody knows how they "know" to come up, but within a few days whole colonies (known as "broods") emerge together. Thousands, if not millions of cicadas, all coming out of the ground to roost on trees, feed, sing, mate, then die.
     So, within a few days and lasting a few weeks, Brood X came together on the trees to sing to each other, hoping to find mates. I still remember the noise: if you stood near one of their favorite trees to feed and lay eggs on, like a cherry tree, it felt like you were standing next to a giant jet-engine with the loud, constant waves of humming. With 90 decibels on average a cicada, you can imagine what thousands must sound like.

     After they mated and laid their new batches of eggs into the branches of trees to start the next Brood X generation, they quietly died and the yard around my pre-school was covered with their black and red bodies. Another vivid memory was of stepping on all of their exoskeletons since the ground was literally covered with them, and thinking of how fun it was that it sounded like walking on popcorn: a quiet reprieve, though, from the loud sound of them alive.

    Fast forward 17 years, and I got to experience the hum again of the offspring of those cicadas I saw as a kid. Just coming back from my college graduation, I was back with my parents in Northern Virginia for a few months before moving to Texas for my masters...and the cicadas were back as well. Only this time, it seemed like they were louder than ever, and far more numerous. Their increase in numbers was likely due to the increase in reforestation of Northern Virginia from when it was mostly farmland, and the cicadas were VERY happy to have more trees. If you drove around in a convertible, you would be surrounded by the waves of humming vibrating from the trees passing along the Beltway. Dogs were chasing the cicadas for free, yummy snacks. Birds were fat, squirrels happy. And all for a short few weeks before again dying and waiting for the new generation to take hold on the tree roots for another 17 years. I was 22 when I got to experience them again, and unfortunately I'm not sure I'll be back in Virginia again at 39 to see them next. I think my ears might be happy about that, though! Below is a video taken from someone who experienced Brood X in 2004 too.

     Come to the Insect Sound table at the Opening Reception for our two shows February 1st to hear more stories about insect sounds and more!