Without Bugs, We Might All Be Dead

There are 1.4 billion insects for each one of us. Though you often need a microscope to see them, insects are “the lever pullers of the world,” saysDavid MacNeal, author of Bugged. They do everything from feeding us to cleaning up waste to generating $57 billion for the U.S. economy alone.

Today, many species are faced with extinction. When National Geographic caught up with MacNeal in Los Angeles, he explained why this would be catastrophic for life on Earth and why a genetically engineered bee could save hives—and our food supply—worldwide.

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COURTESY ST MARTIN’S PRESS

I think, like me, most people regard bugs as, well, bugs—annoying little critters that sting us or spoil our picnics. Why you are so enchanted by them?

Individually, insects are not incredibly interesting, unless you get down on the ground or view them under a microscope to look at their complexity. But they are the invisible force working throughout the world to keep it running.

Almonds in California or watermelons in Florida wouldn’t be available if it were not for bees. Insects also return nutrients to the earth. If they weren’t around, the amount of decay and rot all over the place would be terrible.

We don’t notice these services because insects are so small and we often see them as this nuisance. But they are the lever pullers of the world.

Mace Vaughan and John Losey, two entomologists, did in-depth research on how much insects contribute economically to the U.S. What they found was, it’s about $57 billion, not including pollination. Most of this comes from wildlife, which insects keep going along because they are the base of the food chain for fish, birds, or mammals. Pest controlling insects add a further half billion. And there is no way to account for how much it costs to recycle a dead body or decompose plant life.

You say that 2,086 species of insect are eaten by 3,071 different ethnic groups in about 130 countries. 

 If you go to Mexico, they are selling chapulines—grasshoppers—in brown paper bags filled with spices. In Borneo, they eat rice bugs blended with chilies and salts, cooked in hollow bamboo stems. Caterpillars are very popular in Africa and are a great source of zinc, calcium, iron, and potassium. On Sardinia and Corsica, they eat “crying cheese”— Casu Marzu—that literally has maggots inside it.

In Japan, we went to three restaurants in Tokyo and Shinjuku. At the first, they had these bamboo caterpillars that you could tell had obviously been dead for a while. They got caught in the back of my throat. [Laughs] I needed a swig of beer to get them down.

The next place we went to had a smorgasbord of various insect species. One was this locust that ate rice leaves. It was cooked with soy, with a nice glaze, and because it ate rice leaves, when you ate the insect, you got this crunch, followed by this bright herbal taste that was unique. I’ve never experienced an ingredient like that.

Wasp larvae tasted like the white raisins you get in couscous. They were sweet, had a little pop as you ate them. When chefs regard insects as an ingredient filled with potential, you end up getting fantastic things.

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