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August 13, 2018 | by  | in Super Science Trends | [ssba]

Super Science Trends

Four Legs Bad, Six Legs Better?
In South America, there is an insect called the vulture bee that, instead of eating nectar or pollen, has evolved to eat rotting meat. They then vomit any meat they ingest as a protein-rich goo for their larvae. Basically, they are bees that make meat honey.
Chances are, upon hearing this you’d be thinking “Is it good and how do I try some?”, and you would not be alone. A few months ago I posted this to a “Tell me an interesting/weird fact” thread on Twitter, and almost all of the responses were people positively salivating at the prospect of meat honey. My tweet made the rounds to the tune of about 480 retweets and 1800 likes, gaining further reach when the QI account did their own vulture bee tweet and cited me as their source (#humblebrag #ifitsaboutbeesdoesthatmakeita#bumblebrag), leading me to witness even more people salivating at the notion of a new protein-rich breakfast spread or a tea sweetener.
After the initial elation of going mildly viral wore off, I dreaded becoming complicit in some new hipster food craze, especially in an era where we’re one billionaire throwing Back to the Future II in the Blu-ray player away from getting hoverboards. But the meat-obsessive comments did remind me to check on a trend I’ve been following on and off for a few years now: farming insects as a new source of protein.
The suggestion of insects as the alternative to traditionally farmed meats like beef and poultry has gained occasional media traction for the past half-decade. The main thrust is that insects like crickets and mealworms are more efficient to farm since they use up significantly less land and water to produce meat than cows or chickens. It takes 200m2 of land to produce a pound of beef, whereas it takes only 15m2 to make a pound of crickets. and mealworm flour is a relatively easy way to accommodate insects into your baking.
Although it has lead to a few charming innovations, my personal favourite being protein chips made of cricket meat (appropriately named “Chirps”), I’ve never been truly convinced that insect farming will catch on as an large-scale industry. The main reason being that no-one knows how to farm insects to scale, especially in developed nations. Not to mention you would have to invent or update legislation with regards to quality control, toxins, and allergy information.
The better “insect switch” articles examine the inefficiencies of large-scale industrial agriculture in favour of a modest albeit initially disgusting alternative. It’s a discussion always fascinated me on principle, but as far as I can tell, the conversation hasn’t meaningfully advanced since the first time I’d heard of insect farming in 2014. From what I’ve observed, it’s more of a slow news day item than an sustained movement, an excuse to get hapless reporters to eat a fried locust on camera, buoyed with a headline about how eating bugs will save the world or a “grub” pun (I like to think I treat you better than that, reader, that’s why you get Animal Farm references).
Maybe my vulture bee experience made me a little bitter over how easily people will leap to the prospect of fitting more meat into every meal, so long as it’s from something already familiar to them. But chew on this: did you know the legally acceptable amount of insect limbs or segments per jar of peanut butter is 30? I may never be convinced that eating bugs isn’t for the birds, but if cricket butter winds up sparing me from meat honey, I’ll take it.


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