Countless bee organizations have lists of “honey bee facts” that are entertaining, if not exactly factual. Many such lists claim that honey bees are the only insects that produce food that’s eaten by humans.
That might seem true if you’re looking only as far as your local grocery store, but lots of insects collect nectar or other plant exudates that humans are happy to eat. In addition, some insects produce insects that are, in turn, used for food. For example, if a mama wax moth lays eggs that grow into larvae that you fry in butter and serve over rice, certainly that mama moth was producing food for humans. It’s all how you think about it.
The honey makers
Technically, a honey bee belongs in the genus Apis. Eight species comprise the genus, all of which produce honey that humans can eat. While the western hemisphere is home to the imported Apis mellifera, the rest of the world has a wider selection of honey bees, including the Asian honey bee (A. cerana), the giant honey bee (A. dorsata), the red dwarf honey bee (A. florea), and others.
Aside from Apis bees, lots of other bees produce honey, notably stingless bees in the tribe Meliponini. Although the tribe comprises roughly 500 species, not all produce enough honey to make commercial harvesting worthwhile. Still, many species have been raised or raided for human consumption for thousands of years. Meliponiculture has a long history wherever stingless bees live, including Central and South America, Australia, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
Today, the major honey producers among the stingless bees include Melipona beecheii and M. yucatanica, and sometimes Trigona fulviventris and Scaptotrigona mexicana. The honey of other stingless species is sometimes harvested by individuals for family or personal use.
And don’t overlook the bumble bees (Bombus spp). Bumble bee honey is stored in waxen pots within the brood nest and eaten by the queen, so she needn’t leave the nest to find food. They store it in small quantities — not enough to harvest commercially — but the tiny pots have been treasured by brave children for countless generations. Since children are human — at least mostly — we can conclude that bumble bees do indeed produce food that is eaten by humans.
Let’s not forget the ants. Honeypot ants are another group of insects that produce food that humans eat. The honeypot ants are grouped into seven genera, two of which are found in North America.
Instead of building cells or pots in which to store food, specialized workers in each colony act as living food barrels. These workers, known as repletes or rotunds, eat vast amounts of nectar, plant secretions, and honeydew until their abdomens expand like overfilled balloons, ready to burst. The repletes become so unwieldy they remain stationary, often hanging from the ceilings of their underground nests.
A replete remains motionless until a hungry ant begs for food by stroking her antennae. In response, she feeds it by trophallaxis — mouth-to-mouth transfer. Once full, this ant distributes the food to other colony members just as a honey bee does.
Unfortunately for the replete, she usually dies after her food supply disappears. After having reached the diameter of a small grape, her body simply cannot shrink to its previous proportions. Other workers soon replace her.
Various human populations in parts of Australia have enjoyed the delicious honeypots. Traditionally, they were harvested and eaten fresh, ant and all. Of course, digging for honeypots could foster a voracious appetite, considering the repletes could be six feet deep in the soil, usually in hot and dry climates.
The wasp genus Brachygastra contains sixteen species of honey wasps which collect nectar and store honey in their large paper nests commonly built in treetops. Only one species, the Mexican honey wasp (B. mellifica), lives in North America, while the rest live farther south. Historically, small quantities of wasp honey, which is similar to Apis honey, have been enjoyed by native people in and around Los Reyes Metzontla, Mexico.1
The bees, wasps, and ants mentioned above are all closely related members of the order Hymenoptera. But let’s look at the bugs that produce honeydew. Although honeydew does not meet the definition of honey, it’s certainly tasty and sweet enough to be enjoyed by humans.2
Although honeydew is collected by honey bees and stored in honeycombs like nectar, it is not nectar. Instead, honeydew is sap that is secreted by plants and eaten in impressive quantities by certain sap-sucking insects such as aphids and white flies. The sapsucking insects wound the surface of the plant, causing the sap to flow, then eat so much, so fast that the sap goes in one end and out the other essentially unchanged.
The end product — pun intended — is sticky and sweet and highly admired by honey bees. Being opportunists, the bees collect the pre-processed sap from the surface of the plants, then provide a bit more spit along with transportation and storage in honeycombs. Later, we harvest it, often unaware we are eating not plant secretions but insect excretions.3
Without these intermediary insects, nothing would be available for the bee to collect, so you can add aphids, whiteflies, and similar sapsuckers to the list of insects that provide food for humans.
Another widely consumed product is produced by the scale insect, Kerria lacca. Like the honeydew producers, these insects ingest sap from plants and excrete a substance from the back end of the digestive tract. The substance, known as lac, is the source of shellac, lacquer, and natural varnish.
Although most sources list lac as a secretion, an article in the Journal of Zoology clarifies by saying, “The lac of commerce originates as an excretion (in the sense of excreta) exuded by the scale from the anal orifice.”4 This substance dries and forms a protective cocoon-like covering for the young, which can later be scraped from the branches where it collects.
Traditionally, the lac was harvested and used in varnish, cosmetics, and even perfume. However, modern techniques of filtering and refining have produced a purified product known as confectioner’s glaze or pharmaceutical glaze that is used to coat candies and pills. It is also used to polish raw fruit to keep it shiny and attractive for the consumer. If you’re squeamish, don’t over-think this. Just chase your daily vitamin with lots of water.
Insects as food
So far, we’ve looked at many different insects that accumulate syrups and saps which mankind has a history of eating. Just for fun, I’d like to also mention some of the bugs we eat every day.
What’s that? You don’t eat bugs? Let’s march into your kitchen for a closer look.
The scale bug, Dactylopius coccus, is a parasite of the prickly pear cactus. After the female bug eats large quantities of the crimson cactus flowers, the fluffy white insect turns blood red on the inside — a trait not so great for her personal safety.
Historically, these insects were simply collected, dried, and powdered into the bright red dye called cochineal. Later, an enhanced purification process was designed that yielded the dye known as carmine. The rich red color was highly prized by European royalty who were famously short on stable red colorants. Once the Europeans learned of the dyes, cochineal became profitable for traders in Mexico and Central America.
However, as time passed, cochineal was replaced with cheaper dyes made from petroleum distillates. As a result, the cochineal trade — which is labor intensive — all but disappeared.
In the United States, cochineal was replaced by Red Dye #2. But in the 1970s Red Dye #2 made headlines after Soviet scientists claimed it caused cancer,5 so Red #2 was quickly replaced with another petroleum product, Red Dye #40, which is still widely used in the US. 6
By then, however, many modern consumers were suspicious of petroleum as a food item. In a flash, cochineal made an unsuspected comeback as a natural red dye, and soon began tinting yogurt, candy, cake mix, pie filling, seafood, cosmetics, and drugs.
Not a perfect solution
Although many consumers preferred cochineal over petroleum, not everyone was happy about the switch. In 2012, Starbuck’s yielded to pressure from special interest groups — especially People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — and removed cochineal from a number of its offerings, including the Strawberries & Crème Frappuccino. However, other companies continued to use it, mostly because it is natural, stable, and non-fading.
If you think you don’t eat insects, you may need to reconsider. You can start by reading your food labels. The powdered scale insects may be listed as cochineal extract, carmine, or carminic acid. In any case, because cochineal is naturally sourced, it is an exempt additive, meaning it doesn’t need batch certification.7 However, according to the FDA website, “Because of potential allergic reactions in some people, carmine/cochineal extracts are required to be identified by name on food labels.”8
The hidden meal
Here in North America, most of the bugs we eat are hidden in plain sight, taking up space on our plates without our knowledge. If you are in the midst of a Covid-19 lockdown with insufficient entertainment, go to the FDA website and peruse the Food Defect Levels Handbook. The list contains “levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods that present no health hazards for humans.”
The list has three columns that describe the product, the defect, and the action levels. Keep in mind that nothing happens if the product is below the action level — those foods get a passing grade.
To illustrate, let’s look at “cinnamon, ground.” The defects measured in the product are insect filth and rodent filth. The action level for insect filth is an average of 400 or more insect fragments per 50 gram (1.7 ounces) sample. Luckily, only something less than 11 rodent hairs are allowed in each sample — say, for instance, ten.
My mom, who never ate broccoli, claimed it “has bugs.” According to the FDA, she’s right. Insects and mites in “broccoli, frozen” don’t trip the alarm until they reach “an average of 60 or more aphids and/or thrips and/or mites per 100 grams (3.5 ounces).”
Due to my backwoods upbringing, I’m philosophical about bugs in food. I once asked my grandmother about the squirmy black specks in the flour canister, and she explained that since they don’t eat much, they don’t cause economic loss. My grandfather always joked about wormy apples, forever asking, “What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?” He would then declare, “Half a worm!” and roar with laughter.
Aside from being careful about where I bit, I didn’t worry about wormy apples until I watched a local farmer loading his cider press. The apples, including windfalls, were all thrown together into the hopper. They were all wormy — today we might call them “organically grown”— and no one ever explained where the worm juice went. We drank the cider straight from the catch jugs, no questions asked, and yet here I am, alive to tell about it.
That said, I admit to a certain queasiness about canned mushrooms. The Defect Levels Handbook says the action level of “mushrooms, canned and dried ” is an “Average of over 20 or more maggots of any size per 100 grams of drained mushrooms and proportionate liquid or 15 grams of dried mushrooms.” To this day, if I need a can of mushrooms for a recipe, I open it, rinse them, and bury them among the other ingredients without looking. I would rather eat something that walks rather than something that slithers, so the whole maggot image is off-putting. Once they’re buried in the sauce, though, I forget about them.
Eating insects on purpose
So far, I haven’t included any insects we eat on purpose, knowingly and eagerly. But plenty are available. Remember those wax moth larvae I mentioned earlier? It turns out they are something of a delicacy, having an almond-like flavor when fried and a pork-like flavor when baked. Aficionados like to toss them in a wok or make waxworm tacos.9
WebMD.com lists many edible insects including ants, bees, beetles, caterpillars, crickets, flies, grasshoppers, mealworms, termites, and water bugs, but emphasizes that proper species selection and cooking techniques should be followed.10 Some forward-thinking individuals believe that insects may one day play a major role in the human diet, especially as our population continues to rise.
I list these insect foods not to flip your lunch but to dispel the notion that we humans, especially in western societies, can somehow distance ourselves from things we find objectionable. We should be more open-minded and realistic about how far the economics of modern food processing can separate us from things, like bugs, that are natural and commonly found in our environment. Perhaps we should worry less about a wing here and a leg there, and just enjoy our food without freaking over the small stuff.
Notes and references
- Keck M. (undated) Mexican Honey Wasps. Retrieved from https://agrilifeextension.tamu.edu/library/landscaping/mexican-honey-wasps/
- FDA (February 2018) Proper Labeling of Honey and Honey Products. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/files/food/published/PDF—Guidance-for-Industry–Proper-Labeling-of-Honey-and-Honey-Products.pdf
- In biology, the word secretion refers to substances released by glands or other tissues, including enzymes, hormones, and lubricants. The word excretion refers to biological wastes such as urine and feces. In the case of honeydew, the sticky substance is secreted by the plant but excreted by the sucking insects that ate it.
- Misra A. (April 1931). On the Internal Anatomy of the Female Lac Insect, Laccifer lacca. Retrieved from https://zslpublications.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1469-7998.1931.tb06194.x
- Yoquinto L. (2013, May 30). The Truth about Red Dye #2. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/35905-red-dye-no-2-truth.html
- Van de Walle, G. (2020, April 29). Red Dye 40: Safety, Side Effects, and Food List. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/red-dye-40
- Each new batch of a non-exempt color additive needs to be tested by the FDA for composition and purity.
- FDA (2018, January 4) Color Additives Questions and Answers for Consumers. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/color-additives-questions-and-answers-consumers
- Bugs for Beginners (May 12, 2019). Edible Insects Recipe: Crunchy Waxworm Ramen. Retrieved from https://www.bugs4beginners.com/blog/recipe-waxworm-ramen/
- WebMD. (undated). Bugs You Can Eat. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/ss/slideshow-bugs-you-can-eat