Death – By Eating Too Many False Death’s Head Roaches? The Truth About This Species

Last week, I took this photo of a family of discoid cockroaches at the Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans. Yesterday, a man in Florida died, apparently after eating too many of them.

In response to the disaster, Six Flags Great America is now reviewing their plans to hold a similar event on Friday.

The question is, was it the bugs’ fault? We won’t know for certain until the coroner’s results come back in a week or two. In the meantime, here are a few things about discoid cockroaches you may not have known.

These roaches, ironically enough, are also known as False Death’s Head cockroaches because they so closely resemble actual Death’s Head roaches –  minus the sinister smiley face on their upper thorax:

Despite the creepy name, there is nothing inherently deadly about either Death’s Head or False Death’s Head cockroaches. And in spite of their large wings, they don’t generally fly, so you can release those visions of careening Palmetto bugs that might be flitting through your mind.

Discoid roaches, unlike true Death’s Heads, are good breeders, and are quite productive in captivity. Think of the difference between big cats and housecats – it’s much easier to coax a litter from the latter. The term “litter” holds true in this case: like mammals, female discoid roaches are viviparous, which means they give birth to live young.
Because of their speedy breeding, discoids are a popular feeder insect for reptiles and large arachnids. Their inexpensive availability likely led to their inclusion in the Florida eating contest.

They are also relatively easy to keep. They have almost no odor (unless they are really afraid of something) and keep their enclosures tidy, requiring less cleaning than a goldfish tank. They eat a vegetarian diet of mostly raw fruits and vegetables. It’s likely the roaches in the contest had a better overall diet than the eaters themselves – indeed, better than most of the meat we eat.

Nevertheless, eating a large quantity of an unknown food is inadvisable, especially if the food is alive and kicking as you do so. Since cockroach and shellfish allergies can apply, it’s better to start with, oh, I don’t know, just one? And for goodness sake, always cook your bugs. It’s safer and they taste better.

For more information about the inner lives of roaches, check out David George Gordon‘s The Compleat Cockroach, and for a roach recipe, should you want to try them for yourself, check his Eat-A-Bug Cookbook (soon to be re-released!).

Whip Scorpion, Master Hunter

Damon variegatusPhoto © Animal-World: Courtesy Russ Gurley

You would have bought tickets to see the show in my living room last night. During a long, hot, dusty hike, Brian and I each caught a small grasshopper, intended to feed the two arachnid residents of our home: Caliope, the tarantula, and Freddy, the tailless whip scorpion, AKA cave spider.

Caliope is the good eater in the family, gobbling down almost anything we drop into her enclosure: crickets, mealworms, waxworms, small spiders we find around the house, garden pests like caterpillars. Usually her meals come from the live insects I order for my own cooking projects. Once, I fed her a few waxworms, fresh from the farm. I expected her to eat them one at a time, but she greedily stuffed all of them into her mouth at once, and walked around with the white, sausage-like bodies protruding out of her mouth like a dog with three bones. The one time a caterpillar got away from her, it built a chrysalis in the upper corner of her terrarium. When it hatched, she consumed the beautiful, pale green cabbage moth butterfly with gusto.

Freddy, on the other hand, is not such a great eater. He’s very sensitive to temperature and humidity, and if conditions are not just right, he’ll turn up his chelicerae at even the juiciest, most defenseless prey we give him. I’ve watched fat larvae crawl right over his face, only to be staunchly ignored. In fact, since I’d never seen him do it, and had found plenty of carcasses in his cage, I wasn’t entirely sure he’d ever eaten in the entire year we’d known each other.

Yesterday’s conditions were perfect. It was very warm, so I’d been misting Freddy more often than normal. Caliope, of course, pounced on her present instantly, dragging it back into her cave to devour. Freddy ignored his grasshopper as usual, so I decided to take matters into my own hands.

Reaching down into his tank, I gently nudged the grasshopper into Freddy’s archway. Cave spiders like to hang upside down, so he has a little tunnel to hang out in. I positioned myself with a head-on view of the tunnel: grasshopper in the foreground, Freddy above and to the right. Nothing happened.

I waited. More nothing.

Afraid Freddy might be out of practice, I tapped gently on the glass, in the general vicinity of the grasshopper, to make Freddy think, “Hey, maybe there’s some prey over there.”

Sure enough, Freddy’s whip, or antenniform leg, a long, tendriliferous sensing wand, began to move, exploring his surroundings. Freddy only has one whip, having lost the other before we met. It has two elbows, and the end of it can flex any which way, like a dancer’s wrist. He slowly began to wave the whip about, touching down occasionally on his archway, the ground, and reaching tentatively out into the air beyond the tunnel. If you’d been standing outside the archway, you’d have seen this long black tentacle meandering around, like the patrolling eye-stalks of the aliens in War of The Worlds. I felt a thrill of vicarious fear.

Freddy’s explorations were getting him nowhere near the grasshopper, which sat completely still at the bottom of his tunnel, so I kept up my minute tapping. Slowly, slowly, the amazingly flexible and yet precise tip of Freddy’s whip came closer to his/my target. It touched down here, behind the grasshopper; there, to the left of the grasshopper. I could feel my impatience, and the suspense building. Finally, the tip of Freddy’s long, long arm touched down on the grasshopper’s back.

The tip of the whip pulled back gently, almost thoughtfully, hanging suspended over the seemingly oblivious, yet frozen grasshopper. As if Freddy were processing and planning: “Was that food?” “How shall I proceed?”

The whip-tip came back, touching the grasshopper again. Then it pulled away, and came back down on the right side of the insect. Then the other side. The whip-tip seemed to be ever so delicately stroking the grasshopper, running over its topography, reading its dimensions and precise location. As it did so, Freddy’s body moved, almost imperceptibly, closer.

My heart caught in my throat. Was I finally going to get to see him in action? Was he going to eat?

Since Freddy was behind and to the upper right of the grasshopper, moving closer essentially meant sort of looming down above it. If this had been a scary movie, and the grasshopper the goat in Jurassic Park, or Ellen Ripley in Alien, you’d have been on the edge of your seat. Here, from the grasshopper’s perspective, was an enormous, black spider-scorpion, hanging down above you in a dark cave, with huge spiky claws and a long tentacle that was stroking the electrons of your back without you realizing it – mapping out where you were, inching silently, and with deadly aim, closer.

Freddy stroked the grasshopper, back and forth, back and forth, hovering forward. The grasshopper didn’t move a muscle. Then, suddenly, in the blink of an eye Freddy pounced, yanking the grasshopper to his mouth with his claws and biting in.

The grasshopper didn’t even have time to struggle before his life force was seeping out of him and into Freddy. They stayed like that in a mortal embrace for some time. At one point, the grasshopper’s leg stretched out, like a deliberate ballet stance, or a lover in an ecstatic splay of the big petit mort.

I guess the moral of the story is, why keep a goldfish when you can get a show like this?

Girl Meets BOOK!

(Working title.) Photo by Kimberly Sandie for SF Chronicle

It’s official: I have a book deal! Amazon Publishing, in all their worldly wisdom, has decided to give this insectivorous ink-slinger the opportunity of a lifetime: to tell the story of entomophagy as I know it.

If all goes according to plan, I’ll get to visit experts and projects in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and various places across the US. I’ll keep you posted via this blog, my Facebook page, and Twitter as things progress. It should be a pretty interesting journey.

The book won’t be available for awhile, since I haven’t even finished writing it yet, but if you’d like to be added to a mailing list for updates, releases, and other fun, secret, book-club-only stuff, email me at GirlMeetsBugTheBook@gmail.com. Also, if you have any questions, tips, suggestions, or just plain writing advice :), send ’em there, too.

Thanks as always for your support and interest in this not-so-niche-anymore subject. See ya in the funny pages! (Because, hopefully, parts of the book will be funny. Ok, it didn’t really work; I just wanted to say it.)

Bug Dinner Menu from 1885 – Entomophagy in History

1885 Bug dinner menuReprinted from BugsAndBeasts.com

In 1885, Vincent M. Holt published a slim volume, more of a pamphlet really, entitled “Why Not Eat Insects” to help persuade his fellow Victorians to give entomophagy a try. See the whole book online here, thanks to the cool folks at www.BugsandBeasts.com.

Holt prefaced the work by saying, essentially, “Look, I know this seems weird, but if you just hear me out, I think you’ll agree that this makes sense. My bugs be all organic and vegan, yo.” Or, in his own words:

In entering upon this work I am fully conscious of the difficulty of battling against a long-existing and deep-rooted public prejudice. I only ask of my readers a fair hearing, an impartial consideration of my arguments, and an unbiassed judgment. If these be granted, I feel sure that many will be persuaded to make practical proof of the expediency of using insects as food… My insects are all vegetable feeders, clean, palatable, wholesome, and decidedly more particular in their feeding than ourselves.

Holt goes on to explain the benefits of bug-eating, citing many of the same historic and cultural references you’ll hear from entomophagy advocates today. The question is, what will set our modern movement apart from efforts in the past? I believe that today’s world citizens are more interested than ever before in finding eco-friendly alternatives that don’t drastically inconvenience them, and eating insects could be just that. The main heavy lifting would be in making the mental shift about what does and does not constitute good food.

Many of us have a gut-feeling that eating insects is somehow wrong, gross, dirty, or otherwise bad, and we can’t even remember when we started feeling that way. Because we don’t remember how it started, we tend to believe it is a natural reaction, while history and global culture prove otherwise. Do you recall when you first heard that bugs were gross, dirty, or frightening? Is it possible that you simply absorbed this information straight from your parents at an impressionable age, possibly when they yanked insects out of your young, inquisitive mouth? I like to call this sort of inbred bias “the cultural matrix” – we don’t even remember how these ideas got there, and yet they are so ingrained that they feel, well, obvious. Especially when the rest of the world concurs, reinforcing the ideas even further.

I am currently researching the question of how exactly we got turned off to bugs as a culture. I believe the Bible was a strong influence; as it says in Leviticus 11:20:

All winged insects that creep, going upon all fours, shall be detestable to you.

Ok, so Moses wasn’t an entomologist. The Bible says the same thing, by the way,  about pigs and shellfish, a directive most Westerners have completely gotten over or ignored (because shrimp and bacon taste good, man!). Interestingly, amongst all of this abominate finger-pointing, locusts and their ilk were actually sanctioned by the Bible:

There are, however, some winged creatures that walk on all fours that you may eat: those that have jointed legs for hopping on the ground. Of these you may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper.  – Leviticus 11:21 and 22

 So how is it that pork and oysters have made it past the Bible-ban, while insects, certain types of which are clearly allowed in the Bible, remain in the “unclean” category? 

I’d love your feedback if you have an idea!

Where To Eat Bugs In The US – Via AirTran Magazine!

Airtran Magazine asked me to come up with a list of places in the US you can go to try insects. Check out the handy Bug-Zagat Guide here!

Speaking of airlines, this reminds me of the time Dave Gracer and I were coming back from the  SIFAT International Conference on Edible Insects. We had a bunch of dried bugs left over, so we thought we’d see if anyone at the airport wanted any…they did!

Recipe: Scare-amel Apples!

Bug out your bell-ringers or party-guests with these tricked-out treats inspired by Hotlix.com. They were a hit at a company office party – not a single bite was left over. The mealworms and crickets provide a nutty crunch and boost of protein. Except for the “thin layer” of caramel, this is a pretty healthy trick- er, treat.

Recipe:

  • Apples
  • Caramel
  • Skewer sticks
  • Waxed paper
  • Bugs

Bake rinsed, frozen bugs (mealworms and crickets work well for a mixed-bug look; mealworms alone will look quite snazzy) on lightly-oiled baking sheets at 350 degree for 10-15 minutes, or until golden and crunchy (will smell like roasted nuts). Be careful not to burn them. Periodically turn or shake pans to ensure uniform roasting.

Shove sticks into apples’ cores, from stem to stern, so apples can sit upright. Melt a handful of caramels in a small pot on medium heat until gooey.  Dip apples into caramel. Once coated, remove, allowing excess to drip off bottom. Roll apple in roasted bugs, and set to cool on waxed paper. Refrigerate until cool.

Once the caramel has hardened, you can slice the apples off the sticks just before serving. Cut in stright lines around the core, and then cut smaller pieces. Bug appetit!

P.S. In the background are Rice Creepy Treats. Mix any leftover roasted buglets into regular Rice Crispies Treats recipe for added nuttiness and protein!

P.P.S. Don’t try to cut apples up beforehand, like this:

Although an interesting experiment, the caramel reacted with the moisture in the apples and became watery. They were very tasty, though!

SF Weekly Bugs Out

SF Weekly photos by Kimberly Sandie. Hair and makeup by Ellyse Bernales. Animation by Andrew J. Nilsen

 
I really can’t get over this animation by Andrew Nilsen for the SF Weekly, wherein I eat a cockroach, barf up a waterbug, and then eat it again. Fabugulous.
 
P.S. I got the (undigested) waterbug from David Gracer at SmallStockFoods.com.