The next time somebody bugs you to cook, cook bugs! We recommend these Chocolate Chirp Cookies

Did you know that insects are eaten in more than three-quarters of the world’s countries? They are a good source of vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates and fats and have a very small environmental footprint when compared to other types of livestock.

Think that’s gross?  You are probably ingesting insect parts everyday — you just don’t know it. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has something that it calls The Food Defect Action Levels, and this document specifies the acceptable amount of bug bits in your groceries. For real. For example, you can totally have “10 or more whole or equivalent insects and 35 fruit fly eggs per eight ounces of golden raisins.” Yum, extra protein!

Having an exoskeleton makes bugs crunchy on the outside but chewy in the middle, like a 100 Grand Bar. You, on the other hand, are chewy on the outside and crunchy in the middle, like a Take-5. The crunch in the exoskeleton comes from chitin, a long polymer chain that makes up the “shells” of many arthropods — including crabs, lobsters and insects. Interestingly, chitin never shows up in animals with an internal skeleton, which recognizes the chitin as a foreign substance and eliminates it. Allergy sufferers take note: If you are allergic to shellfish, you are also probably allergic to insects. Blame the chitin.

A chiton, which is not to be confused with chitin or a chiton (a type of Greek dress), is a type of marine mollusk in the class Polyplacophora. We have several preserved specimens here at the Museum, and they are awesome. This one once went on a trip to Whiskey Bridge with a group of school kids and was referred to by name as “Mr. Ugly.”

Chocolate Chirp CookiesThe third form of chiton (the Greek clothing style) is less likely to be crunchy and more likely to be stylish in everyday use, but appears to have more than one etymological meaning. The Greek “Khitōn” could be used to describe this simple cloth garment or a type of protective armor, which makes total sense when you think about the chitinous exoskeleton of a bug as its protective armor.

Are you totally hooked? Can’t wait to try some chitinous culinary cuisine? You can wait for more blog posts which will feature critters in your own kitchen, you can check out the books below by other famous entomophagists, or you can come visit us on October 26th for Spirits & Skeletons or Oct. 27th for Tricks, Treats & T.Rex — which will both feature a bug chef!

 

From the Test Kitchen of Julia Chitin: Beginner-Appropriate Chocolate Chirp Cookies

Ingredients:
•    Chocolate chip cookie dough of your choice
•    Crickettes (available in the Cockrell Butterfly Center)

Chocolate Chirp CookiesProcedure:
1.    Make sure no one is watching. See Recipe Notes below.
2.    Preheat your oven to the correct temperature as listed on your cookie dough instructions.
3.    Place cookie dough on a baking sheet as you normally would.
4.    Place a single crickette on top of each ball of cookie dough. Don’t be put off if some drumsticks or wings fall off.
5.    Bake as recommended and let cool.
6.    Serve up to your friends and family and enjoy the subtle flavors and audible crunch.

Chocolate Chirp CookiesRecipe Notes:
This recipe is the equivalent of ordering fancy take out and then putting it in your own dishes before the in-laws arrive. Minimal effort for maximum gross out results.

I used to make the cookie dough from scratch using a family recipe, adding in the bugs and mixing well. What I discovered is that the bugs get covered in the dough and aren’t visible. (AND when you are eating cookies with bugs in them, no one actually cares about Nana’s secret recipe.) Save yourself the time — and Nana the heartbreak — and use prepackaged dough.

The crickettes, which generally taste like what they are cooked with or in, will have a slightly nutty flavor and are therefore excellent for replacing nuts in recipes for those with nut allergies.

NOTE: If you have a shellfish allergy, you might also be allergic to insects as well!

In My New Skin

Yao Ming
Creative Commons License photo credit: Keith Allison
Yao Ming –
The guy just didnt stop growing.

I bet you’ve never thought of growth in as much detail as I have. As an Entomologist, I think about it a lot! It’s very simple for vertebrates. You eat, drink and sleep – and your body grows. Do you tell your body to grow? Do you try to grow? No, it just happens, slowly at times and quickly at other times. Sometimes we grow up and unfortunately, sometimes we grow out! The point is that it is an involuntary action that our body undergoes, just like breathing, blinking, salivating and blood pumping! I am so grateful to be a human and have this happen effortlessly and without many bumps along the way.  Arthropods, on the other hand, got the short end of the stick! Arthropods have to go through a serious ordeal to get from one size to another, known as molting or more scientifically, ecdysis.

Insects and other arthropods are not like us, obviously! Whereas we have an endoskeleton, or skeleton that supports our body from the inside, they have an exoskeleton, or a hard shell covering the outside of their bodies. This exoskeleton functions much in the same way as ours does. It supports the arthropod, as well as acting as a point for muscle attachment. Additionally, it protects them from certain predators and parasites and helps to keep terrestrial arthropods from desiccating or drying out. It also contains certain sensory structures that are very important to insects and their many relatives.

Exoskeletons are formed by a long chain polymer called chitin. This compound is very tough and resilient and is also found in other animal structures such as the beaks of octopi and squid. When I’m teaching kids about exoskeletons, I like to compare it to a suit of shining armor that a knight would wear. Now, if it was a young knight, he would have to grow, so he could not always wear the same suit of armor. He would have to trade it in for a new, larger one. This is the case with arthropods and their exoskeleton. In order to grow and get larger, they must shed their exoskeleton and grow a new one.

This is where things get a bit hairy! In order to shed their exoskeleton, arthropods have to go through a scientific process called ecdysis. I’ll spare you the boring scientific details, but basically, they excrete a liquid that separates their old skin from their bodies. This process is called apolysis. They then form a new skin. They excrete another chemical which digests the innermost layers of the old skin and they crawl out of what’s left. What’s left behind turns into a dry crunchy empty shell. Shortly before this process, arthropods stop eating, start swelling up a bit, and eventually stop moving or being able to function at all. If anything at all goes wrong during this process, they are finished!

katydid 012

Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
A katydid nymph molting,
getting a little help from a friend!

Many insects have to hang upside down and let gravity help pull them out of their old exoskeletons. If they fall from their perch before they are done, they will not be able to get everything out and will either die or be severely deformed. To make matters worse, they are super defenseless during and after this process, making them prime targets for predators! If an arthropod is able to successfully complete their molt, they are stuck with this brand new, super soft exoskeleton. They can neither walk nor fly. They are completely vulnerable for at least a couple of hours. Have you ever eaten soft shell crab? Well, it’s not some cool different species of crab you’re eating, it’s just a regular crab that has been harvested right after molting. They cook it while it is still soft, so you’re eating the whole crab, shell and all. I can’t ever bring myself to eat them, it kind of grosses me out! The most commonly used crab for this, in the United States, is blue crab.

Feb2010 069

Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
A deformed katydid due to a failed molt

If the arthropod is able to successfully remove all body parts and limbs from the old skeleton and find a safe place to rest until their new skeleton hardens, they can go on living their little bug lives, until the next time they have to molt! This process gets even more complicated in insects that have what we call complete metamorphosis, such as butterflies, beetles, flies and bees. Insects like grasshoppers, cockroaches and praying mantises go through incomplete metamorphosis, so every time they molt, they have relatively little changes in their bodies. They mainly get bigger and some grow wings. As we all know, a butterfly starts out as a caterpillar, it gets bigger as it molts, but when it’s time for it to pupate or form a chrysalis, the process of molting involves the insect changing its body completely. This makes it even MORE of a challenge for them.  It’s very interesting to note that similar chemicals that digest the insect’s old exoskeleton, digest most of the actual cells of the larva, leaving only some cells alive. These remaining cells reform the organism into a completely different looking organism, like the adult butterfly!

Feb2010 084

Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
The Exuvia of a Giant Prickly Stick,
a walking stick from Australia.

The cast away skin of an arthropod is called the exuvia or exuvium. When it’s first removed from the animal, it’s soft, like the new skin, but as it dries out, it becomes very crunchy!

I bet almost everyone has seen one of these. You know those empty insect shells you can sometimes find stuck on trees? I grew up calling them locust shells and I used to love scaring my siblings and friends with them. Then I’d get a lot of pleasure out of crumbling them up! Well, they are not locust shells; locusts are a type of grasshopper. These exuviae belong to cicadas.

Tibicen Cicada
Creative Commons License photo credit: jasonb42882
A cicada molting.

Cicadas are those funny looking insects you hardly ever see but always hear in the summer. You can hear the rattling noise they make during the hottest hours of the day. The immature cicadas can spend anywhere from 2 to 17 years feeding on tree roots underground, depending on the species. They emerge at night, start climbing a tree, and complete their final molt to adulthood on the way up. The next day we find the shells, but the actual cicadas are high up in the tree tops by then!

Every arthropod on the planet has to go through metamorphosis that involves molting. Insects, spiders, centipedes, millipedes and crustaceans. Interestingly, millipedes are born with only a few segments and legs. Each time they molt, they add another segment and 4 more legs.  I could go on and on about the amazing molting process. The point is, next time you are getting down about anything in your life, think about how easy we have it compared to the bugs of the world. Be thankful that we have easy access to resources we need to survive, we have no real predators and we don’t have to molt! The whole process terrifies me really, so I’m very thankful!

Until next time, happy bug watching!

Beetle-mania!

Think it’s good luck when a ladybug lands on your hand? Do you delight in dancing fireflies lighting up the night? Are you gaga for grub worms? Then, my friend, you’ve caught it…Beetle-mania! I know what you’re thinking; ladybugs and fireflies are beetles? Isn’t a grub a worm!  Don’t fret if you can’t name them all. Coleopterans (members of the beetle family) are a widely diverse group of organisms that make up a quarter of all animal species known to science.

scarab beetle
Creative Commons License photo credit: llisa

Beetles, like all insects, have an exoskeleton made of chitin. (Side note: THIS is the reason they crunch if you accidentally step on them!) They have six legs and can come in all the colors of the rainbow. Scarabs, in particular, are sought after by collectors for their brilliantly hued, glossy forewings. Think you’d need to visit an ancient Egyptian tomb to see a scarab? Think again! Just turn on your porch light and open your door around the sixth month of the year and try to keep the June bugs out.

Lady Beetles (Coccinellidae)
Creative Commons License photo credit: jpockele

Beetles are not just fun to look at (though they really, really are); they provide invaluable services to many human professions. Gardeners, landscapers, and farmers use beetles to help in pest management. For example, some species of lady beetles, commonly known as ladybugs or ladybird beetles, are aphidophagous, meaning they eat aphids. Other beetles prey on parasites, such as caterpillars, and even eat fly eggs.

Forensic entomologists can use beetles to identify a post mortem interval. Insects like beetles and flies are among the first to discover a corpse. Members of the Scarab, Carrion, and Carcass beetle families arrive at the scene to help break down the carrion and to eat the larvae of the flies that got there first. (Side note 2: Look up some info on blow flies to learn more, especially Chrysomya rufifacies, the hairy maggot blow fly! My favorite.) Dermestids, or Skin/Hide beetles, are among the last wave to arrive. Because of the very predictable development times of these beetles, forensic entomologists are able to count backwards to estimate the postmortem interval, and can sometimes do so to within a few hours.

Now that your brain is full of beneficial beetle facts, go look under a rock and see what you find! Don’t be surprised if you like it. If you want more, come to the Entomology Hall in the Cockrell Butterfly Center and discover the world beneath your feet!!!