Like Cockroaches, Bug People Will Not Be Stopped

A new book explores the diversity of modern insects – and the strange people who insist on loving them.
03 July 2017, 8:00am
(Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Anybody living in a large city like New York exists in a constant state of bed bug fear. These beasts infest apartment complexes, infiltrate your furniture, and even hitch rides with you on the subway. Worse still, some bed bugs can survive months without feeding. Couple that with their rampant rate of reproduction and the frenetic lifestyle of the modern human, and the scourge of bed bugs isn't exactly likely to disappear in the near future.

But the human impact on how insects of all kinds proliferate is something many of us still don't want or care to reckon with. As with every kind of living thing on the planet, human activity can upend the natural order for insects, freeing them of natural predators and bolstering their spawn.

Of course, some people just like to kick it with, smuggle, or even eat insects. You know, for fun.

In a new book, Bugged: The Insects Who Rule the World and the People Obsessed with Them, out July 3, David MacNeal takes readers on a strange journey into the world of the modern bug. Playing a vital role in our plant life and ecological world, insects have been around for over 400 million years. VICE talked to MacNeal by phone about the kingpin of the black market insect trade, "maggotologists," how eating insects is becoming more popular, and just how obsessed some people (like him) are with the modern insect.

Here's what he had to say.

Photo courtesy St Martin's Press

VICE: Why did you decide to write about insects now? It's not like there haven't been tons of documentaries, TV shows, and books on these guys in the past, right?
David MacNeal: It kicked off in my friend's lab, when he invited me to dissect an insect. When I got there, he took it out of the fridge and laid it out for me. I cut the underbelly with his razor and then opened up its stomach and then just started to pluck everything out. You have to stuff it with cotton, otherwise it will rot.

I was just blown away by how complex these things are. They're just everywhere, and I never looked at anything [so] minuscule and impressive before like that. Originally, the book was going to lean more towards entomophagy—you know, eating insects and stuff. But then I realized there's so much out there about these things, and there wasn't a book that talked about it in a lighthearted, accessible way.

I started researching and found out that the world was filled with these curious, smart, and bizarre individuals who love bugs.

When you say, as you often do, that bugs rule the world, what does that mean—just by virtue of their sheer numbers?
They do so much. I think one of the largest contributions is one that's not easily measured. In the book, I talk about recycling and just what they do on this planet. Without them, the stink from all the decay and rot would be terrible, first of all. But they return nutrients back to the planet, also. They get pollination going. They literally run the world, and you wouldn't think about it, because individually they just kind of seem useless. But the planet would not survive without them.

During your travels and research for this book, given the wealth of literature out there, were you actually shocked by anything? The insect side of it is amazing, but I ran into this man that was really loving and caring as he attended his bees. I know it sounds cheesy, but he was like one of those elders, these keepers of secrets in the world. His honey was fantastic, and he's been making it for decades and passing that knowledge onto other people. It was a taste of that old world where you see mentors and the people they're passing the torch along to. It was just very touching and a very beautiful place. It's infectious, the passion these insects stir in people, and that's what I wanted to communicate with the book.

You met the kingpin of the black market insect trade in your travels. Can you talk a bit about him and his work without blowing up his spot?
The guy was all over the place, like some kind of insect rock star. He had his assistant with him, and she had to get his attention a couple times before he actually acknowledged me. This guy was running bugs from Indonesia, just paying people illegally under the table to take these species out of their habitats. He did it for years before being busted. But my God, the guy looked so interesting: He had a gun holder for his cell phone, and he dressed like one of those Visual Kei guys.

Beetles go for a lot in Japan. The most expensive beetles are the ones that have these deformations. If they have this variation and they're healthy, they could fetch a lot of money. It's all about collecting over there.

Don't most bugs and insects have a short life span? How can you really collect them for a sustained period?
They usually don't live that long—it varies from species to species. It could be anywhere from five days to two weeks to six months to a couple years. Some tarantulas have been rumored to live up to 50 years; that's what the hobbyists claim, anyway, but there's definitely tarantulas that live 20 years. This professor I met had what he called his treasure locked away in this room: The whole room was this leaf cutter ant colony and the queen in there had been around for like 20 years, he was saying. I was just blown away—I didn't know they could live that long.

What in the fuck does a maggotologist do?
Maggotologist is a nickname these police officers in Chicago gave Bernard Greenberg, a professor of entomology, who assisted them on cases. Forensic entomologists deal [or at least used to deal] with murder cases and any corpse that's found that needs a time of death. By looking under microscopes and determining what stage of development the maggots were in, they could roughly determine the time of death. If you are left dead in the woods, you'll want a maggotolgist to figure out your time of death.

Why do you think eating insects is becoming more popular?
I don't know if it's a fad or if people are genuinely going to start eating insects. There's all these things coming out like Exo and Chirps—food brands made with ground crickets or different meal worms. They make these products look like other stuff you've already eaten. It tastes like healthy food, but it doesn't taste amazing or memorable.

Insects are a clever way to get protein without creating more greenhouse gases. You can farm them anywhere. They provide food that will last a long time in a very safe way, but I don't know if it will be enough to win people over.

What was the weirdest thing you ate working on the book?
When I was in Japan I tried this one locust that feeds on rice leaves. They cooked that locust up with soy sauce—it wasn't fried or anything like that. And they brought it out and you could obviously see that it was locust with this syrupy soy sauce cover. Without really noticing it, I was scarfing it down. It had this new taste I never experienced. with a crunchy body and this fresh invigorating feel. It was honestly a delicious treat and I polished off the whole bowl. I think that's the direction entomophagy will go and it's a position that David George Gordon, the famous bug chef, also shares.

Insects should be utilized as a new ingredient and used in ways that we haven't conceived before. The results can be fascinating. You don't have to hide their face—I think people can gradually get over that, if the meal they're eating is amazing. Insects look just as ugly as lobsters or crabs; people just associate insects as these pests, these annoying things. As children, we learn to hate these bugs—people don't want to touch them. But if you just give them a chance and embrace the type of culture Japan has toward bugs, understanding that they're tied to nature, then you can view them differently and all these different avenues open up.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Learn more about David MacNeal's new book, which drops Monday, here.

Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.