Can You Eat Caterpillars to Survive?


Drawing of a Caterpillar

While the modern western world rarely considers caterpillars to be an attractive food group, many cultures now and have historically made a delicacy out of them. You may be curious if caterpillars are a viable food source in a survival situation. Here are the facts.

Caterpillars can be eaten to survive and are in fact high in protein and healthy fats. They have vital amounts of iron and calcium and are low in carbohydrates. When procuring caterpillars you must be careful to avoid the poisonous varieties which typically are furry or have colorful patterns.

Some species of caterpillar are actually considered a food of the future, such as the mopane caterpillar, other’s can be dangerous. If you are a survivalist who wants to take advantage of the abundance of these insects, please read on.

Surviving off of Caterpillars

Entomophagy, or the eating of insects, is practiced by roughly 80% of the world’s nations. Many sources also conclude that the eating of insects may be the future of sustainable food.

While the most common insects eaten by humans are beetles or some form of crickets, caterpillars (larvae) can be a great alternative. The nutritional value alone makes them a smart choice for survival. However, it should be noted that you would need about 34 (33.3) caterpillars a day to meet traditional recommended daily nutritional values.

What Kinds of Caterpillars Should I Avoid?

There are two major concerns when eating a caterpillar:

  • Their toxicity to humans – Avoid colorful, hairy, or unidentifiable caterpillars. Side effects can range from an upset stomach to extreme pain to death.
  • Pesticides – If you have the choice it would be best to forage for your meals in rural areas, away from agriculture. However, provided you follow these basic guidelines, caterpillars can provide you will all the vital elements for survival.

While many caterpillar species are perfectly fine to eat, there are some general rules about which ones to avoid:

  1. Colorful patterns, like most of the animal kingdom, often warns of a poisonous creature.
  2. Furry caterpillars can also be a danger and identification is key before eating them.

If you are ever unsure about the caterpillar you have found, it is best to leave it behind and search for something else. Even if the poison may not kill you, it may cause other reactions that put you in worse health than hunger.

Common poisonous caterpillars in the U.S.:

  1. The Puss Caterpillar (Eastern U.S.)
  2. Saddleback Caterpillars (Eastern U.S.)
  3. Cinnabar Moth Caterpillar (North America)
  4. Buck moth Larvae (Oak Forests, North America)
  5. Hickory Tussock Caterpillar (Northern U.S.)
  6. Hag Moth Caterpillar (Midwest/Eastern U.S.)

How to Eat Caterpillars

Since eating caterpillars is common in most cultures, the process of preparing them is well studied. In parts of Africa where the mopane caterpillar (see above) is a common delicacy, these insects are picked from their habitats before their entrails are removed. They are then boiled in saltwater and left to dry for days. With this method, you can choose to eat them as they are, or rehydrate them before frying if you have access.

Can You Eat a Raw Caterpillar?

It is not advised to simply pick up a caterpillar and eat it raw. Like most meat, this can lead to disease. There can also be pesticides left on the caterpillar that can be poisonous even if the insect itself is not

If you do not have time to dry the caterpillar, any form of smoking or cooking can do the trick. If you have access to the resources, consider adding greens or vegetables like you would for any normal meal. In this way, you can gain what minerals the caterpillar itself lacks.

Best Places to Find Caterpillars

Insects may be abundant, but in the scope of the world, they are very tiny. However, there are certain tricks to finding them in a pinch:

  1. Eating patterns – Caterpillars feed on leaves and leave quite distinctive patterns. If you are searching for them, pay close attention to plants that have been fed on.
  2. Nests – These may be singular and quite hard to spot or they may be large nests with multiple caterpillars. They tend towards the safety of folded leaves or plants with convenient hiding spots.
  3. Forcing them out – If you think a plant might be hiding caterpillars, and you are unable to find them, place something bright on the ground (so that you can easily see them) and rustle the leaves with your arm or a stick. Like a cherry being shaken from its branch, you can easily collect caterpillars this way.
  4. New Growth – Caterpillars like to feed on new growth. It can help to narrow your search by looking for these types of leaves.
  5. At Night – Some caterpillars like to feed at night, it makes them less obvious to predators. If you are not having any luck during the day you may have a better chance once the sunsets.

How to Capture Caterpillars

If you are not using the shaking method above to capture many caterpillars by chance, and instead find one or many on your own they are not ultimately that hard to catch. Caterpillars are slow creatures so a solitary one can be pushed into a container quite easily. If there is a large nest the method is altogether the same, but shaking them out might be faster.

While you would most likely be fine if you are unable to identify the caterpillar do not use your hands to capture them. Use a stick or some other instrument to get them into your container rather than risk an adverse reaction.

Even the monarch caterpillar, common throughout all of North America, can be poisonous due to the number of toxins it ingests.

What Do Caterpillars Taste Like?

While the method you use to prepare caterpillars can alter their taste, bugs, on the whole, are considered to be quite nutty in flavor. The BBC described the taste of different larvae and caterpillars according to different customs of preparation. Those that are fried are described as like a “meaty vegetable” while those that are cooked over an open flame more like a “buttery pate”.

It would appear that insects, when cooked, absorb a lot of flavor from what surrounds them altering their flavor immensely.

Nutritional Value of Caterpillars

Due to the increasing need for a sustainable food source as population rises, there has been a lot of research done into the nutritional value of insects. Of course, it depends on the type of caterpillar. I was rather shocked when I found out how nutritious caterpillars are when compared to proteins in the typical American diet.

100 grams of dried caterpillars contain around:

  • 390 calories
  • 55 grams of protein
  • 9 grams of carbohydrates
  • 11 grams of fat

Compare this to 100 grams of chicken:

  • 195 calories
  • 30 grams of protein
  • 0 grams of carbohydrates
  • 8 grams of fat

Pretty insane, right? And while I don’t think we’ll see caterpillars in packs next to ribeyes anytime soon, it’s hard to ignore the potential for saving someone in a survival situation.

How many caterpillars are 100 grams?

Caterpillars vary in size, but taking an average measurement of about 3 grams you would need roughly 33.3 caterpillars to receive these benefits.

Sources: The International Journal of Science and Research, fatsecret.com

The Bottom Line

While caterpillars are probably not going to ever become part of a Western diet, learning which caterpillars are safe to eat and which are not is a great bushcraft skill to master.

I mean, the little things are typically everywhere in the warmer months. If you know what you are doing, they can be a welcome addition to your plate if you ever find yourself in a survival situation.

Related Questions

What is the healthiest bug to eat? There is really no specific bug that is the healthiest. In fact, pretty much all bugs that are edible are much healthier than eating most animal proteins. Bugs are low in fat and carbs and rich in protein, iron, and other essential minerals.

Are cockroaches edible? If raised properly, cockroaches can be eaten. They are part of the Madagascar diet where they eat something called “Hissing Cockroaches.” They are said to taste similar to chicken, but “greasier.”

Jim James

Jim James spent most of his childhood outdoors fishing on lakes in his area. Due to his scouting background, he has always been interested in survival, camping, and the outdoors in general. Jim is a best-selling author and has a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. He lives with his family in Charlotte, NC.

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