On the efficiency of foraging for crickets

October 6, 2010

For those of you just joining us, we’re trying to establish what the prehistoric hunter-gatherer lifestyle was like. The authors of my new favorite book, Sex at Dawn, refer us to work by Utah state archaeologist David Madsen, who has studied the rate of return of foraging for grasshoppers and crickets. Turns out it was a remarkably cheap way to get food.

Madsen also investigated the rate of return per unit of effort expended in collecting Mormon crickets (Anabrus simplex), another food of early Native Americans. Crickets were collected from bushes, grass, etc., at rates of 600 to 1,452 per hour, an average of nearly two and one-third pounds or, at 1,270 calories per pound, an average of 2,959 calories per hour. The crickets often reach greatest densities along the margins of streams or other bodies of water which lie in their line of march and which they will attempt to cross. In two such situations, they were collected at the rates of 5,652 and 9,876 per hour, an average of nearly 18 1/2 pounds of crickets or 23,479 calories per hour. The first number (2,959 calories per hour) surpasses the return rate from all local resources except small and large game animals, while the latter compares favorably even with deer and other large game.

Eighteen and a half pounds of crickets is, according to Madsen, the caloric equivalent of 87 chili dogs, 49 slices of pizza or 43 Big Macs. Somehow the thought of 87 chili dogs grosses me out worse than the idea of gobbling a handful of crickets — roasted and salted, of course.

Speaking of which, a fun recent article in the New York Times about gourmet entomophagy (insect eating) asks whether the trend might ever take off, say as “a cheap alternative to factory-farmed protein.”

Tom Turpin, 67, an entomology professor at Purdue who has lectured on insect-eating for about 30 years, has his doubts. “On the surface, you would think that that might be the case,” he said. “But in reality, it would be very difficult to have enough insect protein to really make a difference.” Besides, bugs are already part of the human diet in most places with widespread hunger.

That said, Professor Turpin pointed out that an irrational American fear of finding the tiniest scrap of wing on a leaf of spinach is a big reason farmers spray crops. “We probably end up using more pesticides because of the attitude that people in this country exhibit about eating an insect,” he said. “Where in other societies, if you found an insect, you’d say, ‘Oh, well. An insect.’ You’d either eat it or throw it aside.”

I also recommend science journalist John Rennie’s account of the time he ate insects.

Circling back to hunter-gatherers, the big question would seem to be whether the cricket eaters were anomalously lucky, or whether hunting and foraging brought big returns in general. Next time we’ll see what additional evidence Sex at Dawn brings to bear.

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