House crickets are the M&Ms of the insect world, Zack Lemann says. Like the little round candies, crickets are common, but tasty.
His favorite bug to eat, though, is the honeypot ant. The workers’ abdomens are basically balloons of sweet liquid.
“I am a sugar junkie,” says Lemann, the chief entomologist of New Orleans’ Audubon Insectarium. “I love eating honeypot ants.”
Granted, he doesn’t love every bug he’s eaten, but by now, he knows what to look for in a potentially edible bug.
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He’ll cook some Saturday – one of his specialties, in fact – at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ free BugFest. The dish happens to be the festival’s theme insect. His odonate hors d’oeuvres dish is, quite simply, fried dragonfly served on sautéed mushrooms and drizzled with Dijon soy butter. They’ll be served at the Insectival activities in the evening. Other bugs (crickets) will be served the rest of the festival.
“It’s really good,” he said. “It tastes a lot like soft-shell crab.”
Bugfest takes over all four floors of the museum, the plaza between it and the N.C. Museum of History, and a block of both Jones and Edenton streets between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. About 35,000 attendees descend on downtown to talk to entomologists, watch their kids try the games at the Arthropod Olympics or eat bugs at Cafe Insecta.
Chris Goforth, the museum’s head of citizen science, won’t be trying that last part. She’s OK with people eating bugs, she’s sure to point out, but it isn’t for her.
“I don’t like things that have exoskeletons at all, so I don’t eat things like shrimp and lobsters and anything like that. They weird me out,” she says. “There’s something about having to crack them open to eat them that really disturbs me – it’s totally a textural thing.”
Goforth is informally known by a title she’s held since grad school: the Dragonfly Woman. In her research, Goforth studies dragonfly swarming behavior and how weather influences dragonfly flight. There’s already data on how these acrobatic fliers behave on calm, sunny days, Goforth says, but there haven’t been many studies on how they fly in the wind, the cold or the rain.
So she’s looking into it with the help of local middle school students. In her Dragonfly Detectives program, children 10 to 14 years old keep track of the weather and count the number of common whitetail dragonflies crossing a pond. She’ll talk about how to get kids involved at 10:30 a.m. during BugFest in the Daily Planet Theater.
“It’s a really powerful thing for them to see that they created some scientific knowledge,” Goforth says.
Goforth’s own love of dragonflies dates to when she was about that age, and she fondly remembers her dad driving her all over Colorado to different lakes and rivers so she could collect specimens for 4-H projects. This was all after a complete U-turn in life, Goforth says. As a child, she was terrified of bugs. She draws on this early fear in her current bug-centric role at the museum.
“It comes up a lot, actually. I use that as much as I can to tell people it is possible to get over that fear,” she says. “I’m also big on sharing things I am really scared of. Like, I am terrified of snakes.”
In Lemann’s role as insect chef, he encounters fear, too – or at least resistance. Yet he can’t think of many reasons not to include bugs in a diet. Billions of people worldwide eat insects in some fashion, he said. He points out that Americans already eat their closest relatives – crawfish, crabs and shrimp – so why not eat beetles and grasshoppers, too?
“The main reason to avoid eating insects is if you happen to have an allergy to shellfish, (then) you probably have an allergy to insects as well,” Lemann says.
And sure, he encourages bug-eating in terms of adventurous palettes, but also in terms of feeding the world’s ballooning population.
“Even in the absence of some prospect of 10 billion people on the planet by 20-whatever, we do have a lot of folks,” he says. “And many people live in places where mass production and even small-scale farming of poultry and livestock is impractical, so they have protein deficits.”
Insects are rich with nutrients people need, like calcium, phosphorous and iron.
So why not? he asks as he heads to Raleigh, dragonflies and other ingredients in tow.
“I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy chicken and steak, because I do, but there’s no reason not to consider and enjoy eating insects as well,” Lemann says.
Where: N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, The Plaza, and one block of both Jones and Edenton streets
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 16. The Evening Insectival continues until 7 p.m.