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 eat some caterpillars to survive, 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, caterpillars have 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 their 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.
As caterpillars are the larvae to adult moths and butterflies they have to rely on these other defenses in order to protect themselves.
While crickets and grasshoppers are edible insects that can be widely eaten, caterpillars can be filled with toxins that can make you feel worse than any starvation feelings. There are only a few caterpillars that most would commonly consider edible bugs or even a delicacy.
Edible caterpillars may be few and far between, but here is a breakdown of some of the species that are safe for human consumption in a survival situation.
These moth larvae are edible and eaten across all habitats in Africa. The mopane caterpillar is very high in iron, up to 75mg per 100g. They also boast up to 55 grams of protein with varying amounts of calcium and zinc. They will eventually turn into the emperor moth which makes them inedible at that point.
You can find these little mealworm lookalikes in the stems of Agave plants and they are considered delicacies in Mexico with various street food vendors offering up their own recipe using these caterpillars.
A 100 gram serving offers up over 600 calories and is often served with rice. They come in two edible varieties, the white and red maguey worm.
The bamboo worm can be found in Thailand and other Asian countries. They are considered highly nutritious because over 25% of their body weight is protein and just over 50% fat. This makes them more nutritious than many other insects, including ants, earthworms, bees, and termites.
If you’ve ever spent some time in Australia then you know about Witchetty grubs and how nutritious they can be. Historically eaten as a protein source, they can either be eaten raw or with a fire to roast them over.
You won’t have to worry about malnutrition as they contain a lot of vital nutrients, such as magnesium, potassium, zinc and carbohydrates.
While most species of caterpillars that are inedible will generally look like they shouldn’t be eaten (I.E. bright colors, sharp spines) there are some that can fool you. When in doubt, don’t eat any insect unless you’re able to 100% positively identify it. Here are some of the most common toxic caterpillar species to watch out for.
Probably the most recognizable of the bunch, the Monarch Caterpillar is also one of the most toxic. Ironically, they are not toxic inherently, but because of their diet.
Milkweed is their only food source and it happens to be extremely toxic to animals, and us. Avoid eating these caterpillars unless you want to ingest some toxic milkweed as well.
These insects eventually turn into a Giant Silkworm Moth and are widely considered the most toxic caterpillar on the planet. As soon as you make contact with their yellow bristles you are injected with a potent toxin that has been responsible for numerous human casualties.
Hickory Tussock Caterpillar
These silver haired caterpillars are mainly in the Northern US and are a common pest in homes as they love to band together in nests. Some people are unaffected by the hairs on this insect while others will have an adverse reaction in the form of itching, burning, and swelling.
The elderly, and children are especially susceptible to the toxic touch of these insects as a strong immune system seems to hold off the effects.
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.
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.
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 in 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 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!
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.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.