Ento-musings from the University of Kentucky Department of Entomology

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Edible Invasives

by Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist

If you read this blog, you know that we in the Entomology Department at U.K. are concerned about exotic and invasive organisms. Lots of other people are, too. Michael Russell, Scotland's Environmental Minister, believes that "the invasion of non-native species now constitutes the biggest threat to our native biodiversity after climate change." At a recent seminar here in our department Dr. David Wagner (University of Connecticut) showed that invasive species are the second biggest threat to insect diversity after development.

So, we know that invasives are a problem. But what can we do? There are lots of government programs and volunteer efforts that are working to eradicate these organisms, but most take a military approach: they try to spray, cut, infect, and generally shock-and-awe these organisms to death. But what about a more subtle approach? How about... a culinary approach?

I've been reading more and more about efforts to put invasive species on the menu. It's a perfect solution: if invasive species are eating our stuff, let's eat them instead. It doesn't work in all cases (don't try to eat an invasive thistle!), but here are some examples that I've seen recently:

-kudzu. Kudzu is a nasty invasive weed that has been taking over the southern U.S. You can make jelly from it.
-garlic mustard can be used in pesto
-Japanese knotweed is another pest in our area. It has a number of uses.
-an invasive Ray species in the Northeast has shown up on sushi menus. I saw this on a CNN video a few weeks ago, but I can't find it again. Can anyone send me this link? UPDATE: Here is the CNN video. This is a related story in text form. "Eat a Ray and Save the Bay."

And here are some invasive edibles that we've been consuming for years:

-honey bees. Okay, we don't eat the bees, but we eat their secretions (honey). Many people don't realize that honey bees are not native to the U.S. And although they provide a lot of benefits, they also cause problems: they out-compete native bees and their stings send lots of people to the hospital
-pork. Domestic pigs probably originated in Asia. These days, they are delicious right here in the U.S. They cause lots of problems when they become feral, though, so they "count" as an invasive species.

Of course, turning invasives into edible products has a risk: if a demand is created, it's possible that the invasive species will become raised/farmed for profit, and spread even more. So the key is to eat an invasive species until it's gone, and then find a new one to whet our appetites!

Can anyone think of any other "edible invasives?"

UPDATE: I just found a new article from the Louisville Courier-Jounral about an attempt to turn consumers and fishermen onto Asian carp, an invasive fish that is found in Kentucky (and lots of other places). Hey, serve it up. I'll eat it.

Also, another important edible invasive that I forgot: dandelions. They've been in salad mixes and regional/traditional cuisine for years.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Bugs-All-Day 2010: Tom Myers

by Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist

We've added another video to our YouTube channel. This one is a clip from our recent (4/24/2010) Bugs-All-Day event at the Explorium of Lexington, and shows Tom Myers from All-Rite Pest Control. Tom Myers is an experienced collector of insects, and he always brings his amazing collection of preserved insects to the annual Bugs-All-Day event. Tom is also a professional nature photographer!

See the video here:

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day = Insect Day

by Blake Newton, Extension Entomologist

It's Earth Day! That means it's Insect Day!!

There are approximately 1 million named species of insects. That's more than ALL OTHER ORGANISMS COMBINED. There are merely 5,000 species of mammals. 300,000 species of plants--a pittance. One species of human. Feh. Insects are the most diverse, the most important, and the best and the coolest organisms on earth (hey, it's Insect Day, so I get to say that).

New insect species are discovered every year (a few thousand). Others go extinct every year.

Kentucky has approximately 15,000 species of insects. Each has a crucial role in its ecosystem. Many plants could not survive without insects to pollinate their flowers and spread their seeds. Of the thousands of species in KY, only a few dozen (mostly wasps and mosquitoes) are dangerous to people.

Many of the fruits that humans eat are pollinated by insects. Many types of apples, pears, peaches, and other fruits would not exist without insect pollination.

Insects are found on every continent and in every ocean (check out Halobates, a genus of water strider that lives on the surface of the open ocean and preys on plankton and other small critters).

Here are some things that you can do to help Kentucky insects:
-install native flowers, trees, and other plants in your yard or garden
-remove exotic plants from your property
-protect our water! Insects need clean water (and the fish eat the insects!)
-support sustainable agriculture
-support legislation that protects our climate
-support legislation that protects diverse habitats from development
Most Important: learn which insects can harm you and your possessions. If an insect is trying to harm you or your stuff, kill it. With extreme prejudice. Protect the other ones.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

New Video: Praying Mantis

by Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist

We have added our second video to our YouTube Channel. It is a short clip showing a praying mantis feeding on an adult mealworm. It is a little gruesome: the beetle is still alive. But it is a great way to see the mantid's mouthparts in action.

See the video here: http://www.youtube.com/user/UKEntomology?feature=mhw5

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Learn-On at Red Lobster

by Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist

I don't have much patience for chain restaurants, but Red Lobster is cool. For one thing, you can buy a live lobster there. In Lexington, Ky, this is absolutely the freshest seafood that you can get. Red Lobster: committed to fresh ingredients. My wife and I ate there the other night, and I realized that Red Lobster is committed to education as well. Using my wife's camera phone, I snapped this picture:

This is a photo of the fabric that lined the booth where we sat. As you can see, even the upholstery at Red Lobster is anatomically correct: the lobster has 4 antennae (2 pair) and 10 legs (5 pair). By the way, these are 2 of the characteristics which distinguish insects from crustaceans: insects always have 1 pair of antennae and 3 pairs of legs.

So the next time you are eating a live lobster, take a moment to study its anatomy while you're eating it. Get your learn on while you're taking its shell off. (There's meat at the base of the larger pair of antennae, by the way, especially on Florida Lobsters).

Monday, April 12, 2010


by Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist

Entomophagy = the eatin' of insects.

You've probably heard of this phenomenon before, especially if you've watched shows like Fear Factor or Survivor, where cockroaches or tarantulas are often served during the "crazy foods" challenge (they usually show up in a semi-final round somewhere between hundred-year-eggs and sheep's rectum). Here's a video highlight from Fear Factor showing Teller (from Penn & Teller) eating a roach. Or is he?

Yes, insects can be eaten under some circumstances. It's tricky, though, because even if you can get past the ick factor, you also have to consider the danger factor: if you misidentify an insect and eat the wrong species (or prepare it incorrectly), you might have an unpleasant experience. For instance: some caterpillars are edible, while others have stinging hairs and nauseating defensive juices. Also, a tarantula can be eaten, but only if all of the creature's urticating (=sharp) hairs are removed or destroyed. If not, eating a tarantula would be very similar to eating a wad of fiber glass. And here's a cute story: a long time ago, I was watching one of those exotic-foods challenges on Fear Factor (I think...), and the two competitors were trying to see who could eat a live hissing cockroach the fastest. Well, some blond guy won, but he ate the roach so fast that he sliced his tongue open. Cockroaches have really sharp exoskeletons, it turns out. Eating one would be kind of like eating a television remote control, especially if you didn't chew it properly.

As a potential food source, though, insects have a lot to offer. They breed/grow quickly. And as long as they don't have dangerous spines, stingers, or chemicals, they can be nutritious. In fact, edible insects have the potential to be a food-source in hunger-stricken regions of the world. Unfortunately, there has not been much scientific research on the subject of entomophagy.

Currently, a group of international scientists are working together to learn more about entomophagy and its possible role in the fight against world hunger. This month, there is a conference on the subject in Lineville, Alabama. In addition to several talks, there will be a bugfood tasting! Read more about the conference in this PDF. And at the upcoming 2010 ESA (Entomological Society of America) National Meeting, a symposia on entomophagy is being organized. If you are a scientist who is currently working in this area, let us know here on the blog and we will get you in touch with the organizers of the ESA symposia.

And you can read more about edible insects on our website here:

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Hermit Crabs on Survivor

by Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist

After all these years, I'm still a big fan of Survivor. One of my favorite things about the show is the nature footage used to segway between scenes: I often get to see interesting arthropods from exotic locations. This season (Heroes vs Villains) is being filmed on Samoa, and on the most recent episode I saw a couple of cool things, including a very large orb-weaver spider that may have been the Golden Silk Orb Weaver (or a close relative), a spider that is common in the southern U.S. But this episode was all about the hermit crabs! I learned that hermit crabs will hunt for and kill live insects: the one on this episode captured a confused cicada. Also: a hermit crab can apparently be eaten. The villains were cooking one in their firepit. I didn't see them actually eating it, though.

Well, I've written another post about crustaceans. That's three in about a month. Maybe this blog should be called the Daily Carcinologist?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Fisher Price My First Video

by Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist

Well, I have shot, edited, and posted to Youtube my very first video. I really enjoyed learning how to use the camera; a Kodak Zi8. Editing was also fun and pretty easy (with the simple Arcsoft video maker that came with the camera), but very time consuming. The video shows highlights from the recent mosquito-education event that UK Entomology co-hosted with AMCA (American Mosquito Control Association) at the Lexington Explorium. You can see the video at our new UK Department of Entomology Youtube channel here.

Now that I know how to make simple videos, I would like to make a series of shorts that show how to assemble a 4-H insect collection from beginning to end. Now, all I need is a few hundred hours of extra time, and 1 full-time employee to help me!

UPDATE: Because Youtube wouldn't allow me to change our channel profile name from "blaken" (abbreviation of my name) to "UK Entomology," I deleted our channel and started over. The channel, and the AMCA video, are now located at: http://www.youtube.com/user/UKEntomology?feature=mhw5. I thought that it was better to make this change now while the channel is still in its infancy.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Amazing Marine Isopod

Marine isopods show up in the news from time to time. These are basically giant, sea-going cousins of the roly-polies and pillbugs that hang around homes here in Kentucky. Fox news issued a report about one recently: this one was over 2 feet long. The ones I have read about before are only about 1 foot long. Neat critters. They supposedly scavenge whale and squid carcasses on the ocean floor. By the way: isopods are not insects, they are crustaceans. This means that they are more closely related to lobsters and crabs than beetles and butterflies. And I am convinced that a giant isopod would taste great with drawn butter and a little salt.

Here is a wikipedia entry with lots of info about giant isopods.