I have always known that in many places of the world, especially off the beaten track, caterpillars of moths and butterflies are on the menu. From Africa to Australia there are dozens of species that might taste good enough to be reasonably edible or even delicious. But here in the US insects rarely if ever make it onto our tables (at least not to our knowledge) – but occasionally into our bottles. I’m sure that many of you have seen the worm at the bottom of the tequila bottle: which is actually the caterpillar of the Cossid moth Hypotpa agavis. I have even heard reports that migrant Mexican workers dig up native plants on their lunch break to snack on the large pink larvae of a related moth; probably in the genus Comadia. Despite my previous knowledge, I was a bit surprised by a recent article discussing the massive diversity of Lepidoptera used as staple food sources throughout Mexico.
This study recently published in the Journal of Ethnobiology outlines a total of 67 species regularly utilized by indigenous populations of Mexico. 67! Even more stunning is the occasional use of adults and even what I would consider as noxious species. When comparing similar studies this is the largest and most comprehensive of its kind and involved first hand field research. Previous authors cited have only done limited field work or relied strictly on bibliographic work, limiting their results. Only 17 of the 31 Mexican states were covered, leaving many areas still unexplored but likely to further increase the number of edible Lepidoptera. Most importantly you can infer from these results that world wide consumption of Lepidoptera is greatly under reported. It doesn’t come as too surprising however since large juicy caterpillars are protein rich and easily harvested. Some even come in a a ready made pouch. (As an aside, these social lepidoptera are very interesting and form canvass like tents that are nearly impenetrable).
I wish there was an accompanying cookbook and more lengthy descriptions of how these caterpillars are prepared. They do mention that the two most common methods are a simple pan fry or boiled in salted water. I would imagine that some animals require a special technique, or at the very least chased with something better tasting. But like all foods, some have risen to the level of delicacy. The “white agave worm” (Comadia redtenbacheri) is canned and exported to the US, selling for $250 per kilo or $50 a can!
The authors note that seven of the sixty seven are surprisingly eaten as adults; including the Monarch butterfly which is famously noxious. How these are palatable is beyond me, but no mention is given as to how or why they are prepared. Also eaten as an adult is the multi-tailed swallowtail (below, from Butterflies of America). I see these in the field all the time in Arizona so maybe I’ll have to grab one for a snack… But watch out for the caterpillars because they are reported to “make the heart stop”.
Another surprising find is the use of Hemileuca and Hylesia caterpillars. These stout Saturniidae are covered in dense urticating hairs or spines that can cause horrible rashes (somewhat graphic image). How are these prepared? The spines of Hemileuca are tough and not simply hairs that can be brushed or burned off, and the hairs of Hylesia are reported to cause contact dermatitis!
I’m a pretty adventurous eater and I wouldn’t say no to most of these leps. Heck, if you put it on a taco I’d be done before you could tell me what was in it. But this study is important in the understanding of the utility and importance of Lepidoptera and insects in the daily lives of cultures. Preservation of diversity doesn’t just help keep pretty butterflies in the air, but meals on the table.
ILLGNER, P., & NEL, E. (2000). The Geography of Edible Insects in Sub-Saharan Africa: a study of the Mopane Caterpillar The Geographical Journal, 166 (4), 336-351 DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4959.2000.tb00035.x
Ramos-Elorduy J, Moreno JM, Vazquez AI, Landero I, Oliva-Rivera H, & Camacho VH (2011). Edible Lepidoptera in Mexico: Geographic distribution, ethnicity, economic and nutritional importance for rural people. Journal of ethnobiology and ethnomedicine, 7 (1) PMID: 21211040