At 6 o'clock one morning, the phone rang in Gene DeFoliart's home. His wife answered, still half asleep, only to be bombarded with the too-perky voice of an East Coast radio announcer. ``Good morning,'' he chirped. ``Are you the wife of the professor who eats bugs?'' That sort of thing has happened a few times lately, ever since word began to spread about Dr. DeFoliart's efforts to advocate using insects as food.
``Some people get caught up with the `crispy crawler' aspect of this,'' laments DeFoliart, an entomology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Although some people see his work as ``weird,'' he couldn't be more serious about it. He cites, for example, what's happening in parts of Africa, where swarms of locusts are wiping out crops. Rather than killing them with insecticides, DeFoliart says, ``I'm convinced the locusts could be harvested and used for food.''
That might be food for domestic animals ... or for humans beings.
``This isn't something we're trying to cram down the throats of people because they're poor,'' DeFoliart emphasizes. ``Insects are already widely used everywhere in the third world as food for humans - all over Africa, Asia, South America, and in Mexico. People like them. They're an old, traditional food.''
What's more, he says, insects are nutritious, being high in protein (``as good as or better than conventional meat''), caloric energy, vitamins, and minerals.
DeFoliart is concerned that third-world people who now include insects in their diet continue to do so, despite the ever-spreading acculturation to Western ideas. Besides providing essential nutrition, insects could bolster rural economies, because rural people could sell them to urban markets.
In countries where insects are not commonly eaten by humans, DeFoliart wants to promote them as animal feed. For example, he's working on a joint project with Nepalese scientists to look at ways to use a large cricket, which the Nepalese don't eat even though many other Asians do.
He thinks the crickets could be harvested and fed to chickens, as a substitute for the expensive, imported fish meal that Nepalese farmers now use as chicken feed.
DeFoliart knows of about 500 insect species that are used as human food somewhere in the world. For example, termites are commonly eaten in most parts of Africa. ``Two or three times a year, termites will come out in huge numbers,'' says DeFoliart. ``People go out with their buckets to trap and collect them. It's a big occasion.''
Water bugs, about three inches long, are a favorite in Asia, where people prepare and eat them as Americans do lobster.
The eggs of another type of water bug are a delicacy in Mexico. While city-dwelling Mexicans eat the eggs, which are sometimes called Mexican caviar and are available in the finest restaurants, country dwellers often eat the whole bug.
Silkworm pupae in China, caterpillars in Africa, grasshoppers in Asia - the list could go on. People around the world boil, roast, and fry insects, consuming them as part of dinner or a between-meal snack.
``Frequently insects are used in relishes,'' says DeFoliart, ``and are mixed with corn or whatever vegetable may be available. It's the insects that give flavor and pizazz.''
Why aren't insects relished in the Western world? Long ago, they were. The ancient Greeks ate insects. Records show that Aristotle and other learned members of Greek society debated how to cook cicadas. The Romans ate a wood worm beetle.
American Indians, mostly in what are now the Western states, ate caterpillars, cicadas, crickets, and grasshoppers. But those food customs, unlike some others, never caught on with the early white explorers and settlers.
``There are humorous incidents in literature talking about early explorers and pioneers being fed these delights,'' says DeFoliart. ``They really liked them ... until they found out what they were.''
For some reason, the Western aversion to eating insects is deep-seated. ``It's hard to explain why,'' says DeFoliart, ``except that we've had a stable agriculture for so long, we haven't had to go out and gather food in the fields and forests. ``In many of the populations where insects are still used as food, people are still hunters and gatherers - at least partly. They're used to going out to get whatever food they can - and insects are part of that.''
The influence of agri-chemical groups may also figure in Westerners' tendency to squirm at the thought of eating insects, DeFoliart says.
``It's the idea that if you see an insect, spray it. That the only good insect is a dead insect,'' he says.
He hopes to change that attitude.
``We're not trying to convince people that they should eat insects,'' he says. ``But we need to recognize that insects are important as food elsewhere in the world. Plus, they're ecologically sound as a food source. They're much more sound than, say, cutting down the rain forests to raise cattle. And nutritionally, they're just as good.''
Try a bite of bee brood or crunch a crispy cricket
Entomology professor Gene DeFoliart hasn't ruled out the possibility that Americans will develop a taste for some insects. ``Maybe we can get in on the new wave of adventuresome eating,'' he says. ``If you want to give guests at your next party something really different, try some bee brood.''
Bee brood, the pupae of drone bees, may be the most likely candidate for the American palate, according to Dr. DeFoliart. As insects go, bees have a good reputation - they pollinate flowers, make honey. It may not be too big a leap from eating honey to eating bee brood. ``And,'' says DeFoliart, ``we think by selling bee brood, beekeepers could up their income five to 10 times without reducing their honey production. So right off, we'll have a group of promoters and supporters in the marketing effort.''
Young crickets are DeFoliart's second choice to try on Americans. He fried up a batch, seasoned with garlic, for a recent graduate student seminar. ``They're really very good,'' he says. ``One of the students brought his three-year-old daughter, and she ate them like there was no tomorrow.''
Nevertheless, DeFoliart acknowledges that not all Westerners will be quite so eager. ``My daughter was at that seminar, too, and brought some crickets home for my wife to try,'' he reports. ``She said, `Come on, Mom, try one, these are good.' Finally, my wife ate one. My daughter asked her if she wanted another. She answered, `No, I'll have to rest a while first.'''
DeFoliart laughs and adds, ``For many people, it is an effort ... psychologically.''