Sunday, August 5, 2018

Waiter, There's a Bug in My Soup -- Can I have More?

Crepe myrtle supposedly is a favored food of Japanese beetles, but I haven't seen
any on my crepe myrtles.
Many gardeners I know have been talking about Japanese beetles this summer. They've hit some of us in plague-like numbers. They finally worked their way to Kansas (after accidentally being introduced to the U.S. in the early 1900s) in recent years and their numbers are on the rise.

In the last few years I've seen a Japanese beetle here and there, but not so many I became concerned. Last year I heard about them attacking an apple tree and some other things at the Medicinal Plant Research Garden near Lawrence. But I wasn't worried.

This year they descended on Spirit Bird Farm in force, first becoming noticeable on the ripening peaches. This was a blessing in disguise. Because the beetles threatened to consume all of the peaches, I climbed into the trees to salvage what I could, as well as knock as many beetles as possible into buckets of soapy water (which quickly drowns them). This meant I got the peaches before the squirrels did (mostly). My harvest was much larger than last year's.Two quarts of diced peaches in the freezer may not sound like much, but it's more than double what I put away last year. Plus I've eaten fresh peaches and baked a pint-sized batch of peaches with ghee (clarified butter) and powdered vanilla. Extraordinary.

Then I found hordes of the shiny green beetles on the grape leaves, the okra, a tall wildflower called gaura, and some of the apple trees. They were not only eating the apple leaves but some of the fruit on the summer apple. These little beetles can't cut through an apple skin on their own, from my understanding, but took advantage of breaks in the skin made by birds or other critters. Then they converged on the vulnerable apple and ate a cavern into it. They've eaten on the Souvenir de la Malmaison rose a little, but not too badly, even though roses are one of their favorite foods.

So for the past month I've been focused on getting rid of Japanese beetles. Hand picking, insecticidal soap and neem oil, possibly pyrethrum are the organic methods. But they're like the rabbits -- kill a few hundred and there are thousands to take their place. Fortunately, according to a Missouri Conservation publication, the beetles usually disappear around mid-August.

Or is it fortunate?

After seeing the quantities of beetles I collected in the soapy water, my husband asked an inevitable question (inevitable in our household, anyway), "Are Japanese beetles edible?"

I wrote about eating insects last year, when we started looking at ways to diversify our diet and started munching on crickets and especially grasshoppers. When cooked, dried and ground, grasshoppers have a flavor somewhat like chili powder without the heat.
Japanese beetles on the underside of an okra leaf.

Anyway, the answer is, yes, Japanese beetles are edible. Rinse and cook them first, of course. But the answer to "How do we control Japanese beetles?" might just turn out to be "Eat them." So far the main info we've found is to confirm that the beetles are edible. We haven't found recipes, but it doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure out how to cook them, especially after our first foray into insect cuisine. Saute them, bake them, boil them. Then throw them into whatever dish strikes your fancy. I can see baked or sauteed bugs as a crunchy salad topping. Or dry and grind the cooked beetles and use them as a protein additive to soups, stews, and even baked goods. No one will know about your secret ingredient.

Their grubs, and those of the June bug and Green June beetle, also are edible. But the adults are much easier to gather.

The bugs are best collected in the cool of the morning or evening hours, especially when in shade, when they are more sluggish and less likely to fly. I've been knocking them into a wide mouth pint canning jar and slapping the lid on before they fly away. My husband just discovered the suggestion to use the upper portion of a plastic bottle inverted like a funnel into a jar. The bugs easily fall in, but can't fly out. That way I'm not constantly dropping the lid.

When I'm done collecting the beetles, I stick them in the freezer. An easy and humane kill.

So now that I've taken to looking at Japanese beetles as another thing to harvest from the garden, their numbers are decreasing. Figures. At least now I can almost look forward to their return next year.


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