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Know your bugs

Bug of the Week

It can be daunting to launch into a new area of food. Which insects can you eat, and how so?

We don't seek to promote, but we do want to explore – one bug at a time. That's our 'Bug of the Week'.

Here's a list of all of them to date.

Stingless Bee

The multipurpose minilivestock: Stingless Bees get the UN excited

There are about 500 species of stingless bee, found across Australia, Brazil, Central America and Africa. These guys aren’t very big, and their sting is too small and ineffective to do any damage – instead, their defensive mechanisms against humans is to buzz around your ears and annoy you. Aw.

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Never mind the fake worms – here's the real deal

When I was small we had a sacred plastic box layered with soil and sand. I would watch in wonderment as the fat worms wriggled down the side of the perspex, greedily digesting the soil and leaving hundreds of intricate lines through the sand, like a map of a river basin. I’ve no idea why we had an earthworm kit; perhaps just for the wonderment.

Now though, earthworms have been added to the list of ‘potential new food’; an edible bug that is in theory at least very widely available. Possibly just a few feet away from you, burrowing away in the soil.

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Black Soldier Fly

Black Soldier Fly, or: the helpful fly

A strange thing happens when you spend a lot of time thinking about, writing about, and looking at images of, insects. The deep fear and revulsion that was probably instilled in you at a young age starts to dissipate. The thought of holding a grasshopper, or a caterpillar, or a furry, winged moth, suddenly is entirely plausible - and if you’ve been researching entomophagy, even the idea of eating these bugs becomes quite attractive. It’s taken me by surprise – how easily fears and disgust can be overcome by just thinking things through.

I just wanted to make that clear before introducing our new Bug of the Week: flies. These guys are a hard sell, entomophagy-wise: we associate them very strongly with dirt, filth, disease, and, er, Jeff Goldblum. Shudder.

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Talking about 'eating insects'

Talking about 'eating insects'

Eating insects is rising in popularity – and it does so under the term 'entomophagy'. But to a group of ten academics dedicated to studying insects for human consumption, there’s a growing wariness associated with using the E-word – and the the terminology surrounding it. Prompted by their unease they got together and wrote a paper on the subject, titled ‘Entomophagy’: an evolving terminology in need of review. They argue that the terminology lacks precision, and that the E-word in particular has an implicit, though perhaps unintentional, negative value judgment. This article summarises some of the points presented in the paper.

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June Beetle

June's own bug

Just as May has her own bug – otherwise known as the cockchafer, which we’ve featured previously – so too does the month of June.

There are various types of beetles referred to as June Bugs or Beetles, but we'll focus on Phyllophaga (literally ‘leaf-eater’) which is in the family of scarab beetles. ‘June bug’ is a bit easier to get your tongue around than Phyllophaga though.

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The incredible insect that makes our silk: the silkworm

Humans have produced silk for at least 5,000 years, domesticating the silk moth in the process. It became a wildly popular luxury product and today 70 million pounds (around 32 million kilograms) of raw silk are produced each year.

When you think that this silk comes from insect larvae spinning tiny threads to form a cocoon, the scale of this global production seems vast. Mostly it’s done using silk moths, but other insects, and spiders, can produce silk too. It’s a protein fibre, spun by the larvae to create a protective cocoon in which it can complete metamorphosis. For the silkworm, this means emerging as a moth.

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Mopane Caterpillar

The Very Hungry Mopane Caterpillar

Across the south of the African continent, in shallow limey soils and hot dry air, you’ll find the mopane tree. It has delicate leaves, shaped like butterfly wings, and hard, dark-red wood. And on this mopane tree you might well find an extraordinary-looking caterpillar.

The 'mopane worm' – really a caterpillar, as it later turns into a moth – looks brilliantly prehistoric, with gnarly black spikes running the length of its large body, furry little feet, and a funky neon-yellow-and-orange pattern.

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Escamol (Ant Larva)

Mexican 'caviar': Escamoles (Ant Larvae)

As ever when eating the young of an animal, the high fat and protein content means people describe such food as ‘nutty’, ‘buttery’ and rich. A lot of the insects we’ve covered are eaten in their larval form, with worms, maggots and grubs of various moths and beetles being particularly popular across the world.

One insect that’s eaten in its adult form is ants – packing a tangy, often citrus taste due to their acid content. This week our focus is on their larvae, and we’re looking to Mexico for examples of how they're eaten. They are called escamoles, an indigenous word. Escamoles are sometimes dubbed ‘Mexican caviar’ because of their similarity – in appearance, at least – to the roe (eggs) of fish.

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Cheese Fly Larva

Cheese Fly Larva – the earthworm of cheese-making

This week we’re looking at the larvae – or maggots – of the cheese fly, and an unusual Sardinian delicacy they inhabit. These little shiny black flies can jump a good six inches in the air, giving them the nickname ‘skipper’.

These flies love cheese. Obviously. They like meat too. As larvae, they like foods they can leak their acidic stomach juices onto and regurgitate. And in many cultures this has been seized as an opportunity to make tastier food – most famously in Sardinia.

Yes, it’s that cheese. The one with the wriggling insides; star of countless ‘weirdest food’ features (you know who we mean). It’s thought of as a little ‘edgy’ given its hazy legal status. You can produce casu marzu and for your own table - but selling it carries a fine.

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Why waxworms make sweet treats

Scourge of the beekeeper, the wax moth looks remarkably like a piece of bark. It has spread to most continents, following the honeybees, and attacking weak hives.Their larvae, or caterpillars, can rip through a beehive like nothing on earth, causing utter havoc and eventually killing the hive.

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