Save the Bees or Eat the Bees?

These chefs are cooking with bees -- and drawing no small controversy.

Food Features
Save the Bees or Eat the Bees?

Love them or fear them, the one thing that has dominated headlines for the past few years when it comes to bees, is that we need them. Colony collapse is real, neonaticides are to blame and if we don’t change things fast the world as we know it could end.

“Save the bees” is a generally accepted battle cry and the quickest way to confuse a beekeeper is to suggest that instead of saving them, we start eating them.

“This takes me by surprise!” Holly Bayendor McConnell writes via email.

Although she imagines there are “nutritionally beneficial properties in bee larvae,” Bayendor McConnell, the President of the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association, wouldn’t be able to join the ranks of those who eat bee larvae. “As a beekeeper concerned with the well-being of bees, I would never think of eating them,” McConnell writes.

But that’s not stopping people like Chef Mario Hevia, who claims the tiny, white larvae are delicious. He’s eaten and served them raw while working at Seattle’s Canlis restaurant, a swanky spot that boasts a garden and an apiary on its grounds.

“They taste like fatty honey,” Hevia says.

However, as with anything even slightly controversial in the food world – there are a few hurdles we need to clear before we go hog wild on eating larvae. First comes from the concerns voiced from beekeepers and chefs.

“Consuming bee larvae may be a necessary, or at least an interesting, part of other culture’s diets,” writes Taylor Hall, chef and owner of Apis Restaurant and Apiary in Spicewood, Texas.

“At Apis, though, we feel eating bee larvae is counterproductive to our efforts of improving the sustainability of honey bees. Honey bees are dying off at alarming rates, particularly in North America and Northwestern Europe. Some areas are seeing a 40 percent decrease, which means there are significantly fewer bees to pollinate the crops we rely on for food,” Hall writes.

This is exactly the type of argument that Damian Magista can’t adhere to. Owner of Bee Local Honey in Portland, Oregon, the urban beekeeper has spent significant amounts of time with wild honey hunters in places like Cambodia where larvae serve as a significant source of protein.

He notes that here in North America we live in a land of excess.

“We have an entire network on TV devoted to food and so to our western sensibilities, the idea of eating bugs or eating larvae is unnecessary because we have such excess,” Magista says.

His travels and observations of cultures that rely on larvae as a food source trumps the sustainability card.

“To sit there with these people who don’t have food on a day to day basis and say they can’t have this source of protein? You just can’t do that, it’s unreasonable,” Magista says.

Additionally, he points out that the honey bee as we know it is actually an invasive, non-native species to North America, originally brought over in the early 1600s by settlers. “Native Americans used to call them “white man flies” because when they would start to see swarms of honey bees they knew the white man wasn’t far behind,” Magista says.

But according to Magista, we’ve forgotten the bee’s invasive history – and since we now look to the bee as a precious insect that not only produces delicious honey, but is responsible for pollinating the nation’s crops – we tend to be a bit dramatic when it comes to eating them.

“It’s all subjective and I think people without knowing or experienced things make this rush to judgements which quite frankly are just silly.”

Josh Evans, a researcher at the Nordic Food Lab in Denmark offers another angle to Magista’s argument.

Evans pointed to an article he wrote in a 2013 issue of Wolf Magazine that details his reasoning behind first eating larvae (and even the further developed pupa), bringing it back to the “save the bees” mentality.

There is a parasite called the Varroa mite (Evans refers to it as a “puny, vociferous force”) that attacks drone comb and eats holes in the larvae. And even though the majority of drone bees die, removing a significant portion of the drone comb helps to control the mites and ensures overall hive health.

So we’ve got the reasons that might help open our minds, but let’s clear that final hurdle. Honey is delicious. Fresh honey comb is described best in Evans’s article as “luxurious, bewildering and ambrosial.” But larvae?

Essentially, they’re bugs, and bugs are generally regarded as gross. And the thought of eating them? It immediately conjures the most disgusting idea of them all.

“Bug guts popping in our mouth,” Magista offers.

But according to him, the larvae don’t so much pop as they do snap.

“It’s like eating a good bratwurst where you get that snap on the skin. It’s super satisfying and not gross, instead it’s a nice snap and then a very clean, light flavor,” Magista says.

Evans describes the flavor as “smooth and savory and slightly sweet. The flavor is something of egg and raw nuts and warm honeydew melon.”

While Magista and Hevia have only eaten them raw – Evans and his crew at the Nordic Food Lab turned raw larvae into mayonnaise through emulsion, dehydrated the larvae and served them as a crunchy snack and even blended them with honey and used it as the sweetening component in granola.

Again, there are people who can’t wrap their heads around eating larvae for fun, like Corky Luster of Seattle’s Ballard Bee Company.

“The only sampling of flavor I get is from pupae bursting in my face when I’m cleaning off bottoms of frames. Can’t say it tastes good from my point of view,” Luster says.

However, there are curious folks out there, especially with the popularity of eating other insects on the rise. Magista says he has been approached to help open a bug-focused food cart in Portland and doesn’t doubt one will open soon, with or without his input.

As for chefs and the general public asking him or any other beekeeper for larvae?

“I think maybe little pockets of people who are particularly interested in things that are a little challenging or shocking. We’re seeing a trend moving toward eating bugs; and I think it’s a bit early right now, but I could definitely see it happen.”

Jackie Varriano is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest. When she’s not at her computer or in the kitchen, you can usually find her elbowing her way to the front at concerts or holed up in the cookbook section of any used bookstore. She what she’s up to on Instagram @jackievarriano.

Photo by Vipin Baliga CC BY

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