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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

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What are insects?


Insects are animals that have:

• 1 pair of antennae

• 2 pairs of wings (if any)

• 3 pairs of legs

• 3 body parts: head, thorax & abdomen

• and an exoskeleton

 

"Exo" means their skeleton is on the outside!

 

When is an insect not a bug?


There are a group of insects called "true bugs" that differ

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from other insects in several ways.  One way they are different is that they eat using a feeding tube instead of chewing jaws.

You probably have seen Boxelder bugs a lot on HOT days at school or at home.  Make sure you be careful though because their only way to defend themselves is to let off a stinky odor!!!  That's probably why no other insects or animals like to eat them.  That's right....Boxelder bugs have no natural enemies, except for YOU!  Boxelder bugs will leave a red stain if you step on them and so the only easy way to get them out of your sight is to get out your vacuum cleaner!
 
 
When is a bug not an insect? 

clipart picture of a grey spider.Many people think anything with a lot of legs, like a spider, is an insect.  But if it has eight legs as do spiders, ticks and scorpions, it is considered an arachnid, not an insect. 
 
 
What eats insects?

Plants like the pitcher plant and venus flytrap eat other insects; fish and amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals (like coyotes, moles and shrews), grats, and PEOPLE all eat insects!  Some insects even eat each other which is called cannibalism.
 
 
What is ENTOMOPHAGY?

 

"EATING INSECTS!"  That's right!  Entomophagy is eating insects and in the U.S., it's predicted that you'll eat as much as 1 pound of insects in your lifetime - by accident, of course.

 

That's because insects and parts of insects are impossible to eliminate completely in modern food harvesting and processing.  Consequently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows a certain amount of bugs and bug parts in your processed food.  So one way or the other, we've all eaten insects.

 

But as much as we dislike the thought of eating insects, there are a lot of cultures around the world who think differently.  Many native societies in Australia, Asia, Africa and elsewhere have a long history of eating insects for a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals.  In fact, there are 1,462 recorded species of edible insects.

 

Many of the insects eaten are those that can be gathered in large number, like ants, termites and locusts (grasshoppers).
 
 
Consider this menu:


Locusts:
These insects are eaten in parts of Africa and increasingly in South Korea.  They are boiled, cleaned and salted after being gathered early in the morning before they're active.   


Termites: These insects are a popular food in parts of Africa and Australia, particularly the large queen castes, where one single termite can measure up to 3 inches long.  They are typically eaten lightly salted and are a better source of protein than beef, but they also are really high in fat so some people convert them into a colorless oil used for frying.


Caterpillars:
In Mexico, caterpillars from the Giant Skippers are sold fresh in markets and then fried before eaten.  Many beetle grubs (baby beetles that are a lot like caterpillars) are also popular.  The Goliath beetle reaches to a length of 5 1/2 inches and is a favorite in Africa.  Silkworm pupae and ant eggs are also popular in Asia and Africa.  Caterpillars look really poky, but it's actually soft and fuzzy!


Crickets:
In Thailand, crickets - considered one of the best tasting insects - are cooked and served as crunchy snacks.  The mole cricket, in particular, is a favorite because it contains high levels of protein, iron, calcium, phosphorus, vitamins B1 and B2 and niacin.  These are all important vitamins and minerals that help keep you healthy.  


Beetles:
Despite their hard shells, adult beetles are also yummy!  People in Thailand eat water beetles and people in China eat giant water bugs.  They consider them a delicacy, which means that they are a super fancy snack!!!  What do you think?  Would you like to eat a beetle for a holiday dinner?


Bees:
Wild honey bees are a popular treat in Thailand and they are so heavily hunted as a food item, that researchers believe that small farmers should start raising them to help both the farmer's income and prevent extinction.

 
 
What do insects eat?

Plants (all kinds and all parts), other insects, each other (which is called cannibalism), small fish, tadpoles or even a giant water bug, dung (cowpies), dead animals and live ones, too, including YOU!
 
 
What is biological control?

The use of an insect, disease, or mite to control a troublesome weed or insect pest is called biological control and the insect, disease or mite used is called a "natural enemy."

 

At NPARL, scientists study several "natural enemies" of insect pests and weeds.  One of the "good bugs" is this Aphthona flea beetle, an insect being used to control the noxious weed called leafy spurge.

 

Other natural enemies are being studied for use against crop pests,  and to battle weeds like spotted knapweed and hoary cress. Have you ever seen leafy spurge along the side of the road or in a field? 


 

 


Last Modified: 5/20/2010