Can You Really Eat Caterpillars to Survive?

Having a contingency plan to supply yourself and others with calories in a long-term survival situation is a cornerstone of prepping. No matter how well stocked your pantry, no matter how many MREs you are carrying, things can always get worse, and running out of food due to consumption, spoilage or loss is a possibility.

One of Nature’s most available sources of protein comes from the insect kingdom, and among the most plentiful and easiest to catch insects around are caterpillars.

Can you safely eat caterpillars in a survival situation? Yes you can, but not all of them. They are extremely nutritious – dense in protein, minerals, fats and calories. They’re easy to catch, and take well to a variety of preparations. Be aware of caterpillars in bright colors that aren’t safe to eat due to being poisonous, venomous, or possessing hairs or barbs that could be a choking hazard.

By using just a little bit of caution you will be able to safely harvest nutritious caterpillars as an emergency food source.

There is a lot to unpack and a lot to learn before you embark on your journey of emergency caterpillar cuisine. We will discuss a few factors in the rest of this article.

Caterpillars are a Nutritious Staple around the World

You might be surprised to learn that caterpillars are a nutritious staple around the world, and that roughly three quarters of the planet’s cultures regularly make meals of insects, caterpillars counted among them.

It is easy to see why: caterpillars are absolutely packed with nutrition. Compared to common chicken, caterpillar has fully twice the calories, nearly twice as much protein, a few carbs and about the same amount of fat.

They also contain an abundance of minerals and vitamins, and are especially high in iron content. Caterpillars are not a nutritionally complete comestible, but they are pretty close!

Additionally, most caterpillar species are sizable and easy to harvest. They aren’t quick, they don’t fly and aside from a few species with potent defensive adaptations they generally rely on camouflage or even communal living to survive predation, meaning that an average human will have a very easy time of collecting them.

Avoid the Dangerous Ones

As alluded to not all caterpillars are safe to eat. Some of them are poisonous by virtue of defensive adaptation or even their regular consumption of poisonous plants.

Some caterpillars are actually venomous, capable of delivering painful, debilitating or even deadly stings through specialized hair structures. Some caterpillars are just flat-out not worth the trouble, being covered with wiry, spiny hairs that make them risky to eat without substantial preparation.

If you are considering adding caterpillars to your diet or just keeping them in reserve as an emergency source of nutrition in a survival scenario, you would do well to learn which ones are troublemakers in your neck of the woods and which ones are safe.

You will rarely go wrong sticking with caterpillars that are smooth bodied, hairless and in some shade of brown, green or tan in color. Other variations on this rule of thumb may in fact be safe to eat, but you’ll need to learn them and carefully identify them before taking the chance!

Barring that, there are two broad categories you want to avoid eating.

You should stay away from caterpillars that are particularly colorful or have vibrant patterns because this is nature’s way of advertising to the caterpillar’s potential predators that the critter in question is either not safe to eat or extremely unpalatable.

You should also avoid caterpillars that are covered in hairs, spines or other protruding structures. Whether or not the caterpillar is capable of delivering a sting these are not ones you want to try and eat.

Even if they are not poisonous or venomous you could risk choking, or injuring your mouth trying to eat one of these prickly crawlers.

Finding Caterpillars

Caterpillars can be found all over the world, and can range from common to extremely abundant depending upon the season, but actually locating them can be challenging, especially because they are often found on or around dense foliage and many of them rely on extraordinarily effective camouflage in order to avoid being eaten.

One tip that can help you find them is to understand what caterpillars eat and how they eat. Different species of caterpillar eat in different ways, leaving tiny, distinctive bite patterns in the plants that they prefer which can tip you off to their presence.

Speaking of plants, it is helpful to learn what varieties of vegetation your preferred caterpillar species eat as locating their food is a sure way to locate them if they are in the area.

Narrow your search area down further by looking for new, tender growth on the plants where caterpillars feed. The majority of caterpillar species prefer new growth over mature plants and will prioritize their feedings accordingly.

Some caterpillars also live in large communal nests or groups similar to a colony. You should endeavor to learn what these caterpillar species are and what their nesting behavior looks like so that you can easily collect a mass of them in one fell swoop.

M'vinsu - Harvesting of edible caterpillars in Africa

You Gotta Catch Them, First

Unlike other esoteric collection methods employed for smaller or nimbler insects there are no special hunting methods needed for caterpillars.

As mentioned above they are slow, they don’t (yet) fly and barring any special defensive mechanisms or camouflage they don’t have a prayer of getting away from you once you notice them. You can simply pick them up or sweep them into a container.

The only challenge you might encounter is spotting the sometimes perfectly camouflaged critters hiding in vegetation when you draw near.

Especially in less than perfect light or when you are pressed for time this is far easier said than done. In this case, you should employ a trick commonly used by farmers when the time comes to harvest their fruit: Shake it and shake it good!

By placing a drop cloth, hammock, handkerchief or some other similarly contrasting and sizable piece of fabric on the ground beneath the suspected hiding place of the caterpillars you can then proceed to tap or shake the leaves and branches, and collect the caterpillars right off of your catcher cloth.

As it turns out, most caterpillars do not have a particularly good grip and can be knocked free easily.

Preparation Methods

Caterpillars that are safe to eat may be eaten raw, but you are advised to cook them first in order to destroy parasites and other germs that could still make you sick.

You should also make every attempt to wash your caterpillars before consumption in any way since they are prone to getting exposed to various pesticides in their travels.

Regarding prep, caterpillars have a big advantage over many other insects because they are easy to prepare and so many different ways. They can be dried, fried, roasted or even ground and added to other dishes.

Caterpillars are also somewhat famous for their palatable texture and flavor when cooked, and are known for readily taking seasoning when you want to literally spice up your meal.

Caterpillars are also easy to prepare for the long haul simply by removing their internals and then carefully drying or smoking them. They will keep for a long time preserved in this way and can even be reconstituted for use in other preparations.

The notion of eating bugs might gross you out if you are from a Western country, and that is understandable, but caterpillars really are a survival superfood as far as insects are concerned!

Conclusion

With just a little bit of caution you will find that caterpillars are absolutely safe to eat and indeed highly nutritious when consumed as a survival food. Caterpillars are high in protein, essential fats, vitamins, minerals and are calorie dense.

They are easy to prepare and easy to preserve, and so long as you use a little common sense in avoiding poisonous, venomous or otherwise hazardous species of caterpillar you can hardly go wrong with these wiggly crawlers as a nutritional supplement.

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