Countless bee organizations have lists of “honey bee facts” that are entertaining, if not exactly factual. Many such lists claim that honey bees are the only insects that produce food that’s eaten by humans.
That might seem true if you’re looking only as far as your local grocery store, but lots of insects collect nectar or other plant exudates that humans are happy to eat. In addition, some insects produce insects that are, in turn, used for food. For example, if a mama wax moth lays eggs that grow into larvae that you fry in butter and serve over rice, certainly that mama moth was producing food for humans. It’s all how you think about it.
The honey makers
Technically, a honey bee belongs in the genus Apis. Eight species comprise the genus, all of which produce honey that humans can eat. While the western hemisphere is home to the imported Apis mellifera, the rest of the world has a wider selection of honey bees, including the Asian honey bee (A. cerana), the giant honey bee (A. dorsata), the red dwarf honey bee (A. florea), and others.
Aside from Apis bees, lots of other bees produce honey, notably stingless bees in the tribe Meliponini. Although the tribe comprises roughly 500 species, not all produce enough honey to make commercial harvesting worthwhile. Still, many species have been raised or raided for human consumption for thousands of years. Meliponiculture has a long history wherever stingless bees live, including Central and South America, Australia, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
Today, the major honey producers among the stingless bees include Melipona beecheii and M. yucatanica, and sometimes Trigona fulviventris and Scaptotrigona mexicana. The honey of other stingless species is sometimes harvested by individuals for family or personal use.
And don’t overlook the bumble bees (Bombus spp). Bumble bee honey is stored in waxen pots within the brood nest and eaten by the queen, so she needn’t leave the nest to find food. They store it in small quantities — not enough to harvest commercially — but the tiny pots have been treasured by brave children for countless generations. Since children are human — at least mostly — we can conclude that bumble bees do indeed produce food that is eaten by humans.
Let’s not forget the ants. Honeypot ants are another group of insects that produce food that humans eat. The honeypot ants are grouped into seven genera, two of which are found in North America.
Instead of building cells or pots in which to store food, specialized workers in each colony act as living food barrels. These workers, known as repletes or rotunds, eat vast amounts of nectar, plant secretions, and honeydew until their abdomens expand like overfilled balloons, ready to burst. The repletes become so unwieldy they remain stationary, often hanging from the ceilings of their underground nests.
A replete remains motionless until a hungry ant begs for food by stroking her antennae. In response, she feeds it by trophallaxis — mouth-to-mouth transfer. Once full, this ant distributes the food to other colony members just as a honey bee does.
Unfortunately for the replete, she usually dies after her food supply disappears. After having reached the diameter of a small grape, her body simply cannot shrink to its previous proportions. Other workers soon replace her.
Various human populations in parts of Australia have enjoyed the delicious honeypots. Traditionally, they were harvested and eaten fresh, ant and all. Of course, digging for honeypots could foster a voracious appetite, considering the repletes could be six feet deep in the soil, usually in hot and dry climates.
The wasp genus Brachygastra contains sixteen species of honey wasps which collect nectar and store honey in their large paper nests commonly built in treetops. Only one species, the Mexican honey wasp (B. mellifica), lives in North America, while the rest live farther south. Historically, small quantities of wasp honey, which is similar to Apis honey, have been enjoyed by native people in and around Los Reyes Metzontla, Mexico.1
The bees, wasps, and ants mentioned above are all closely related members of the order Hymenoptera. But let’s look at the bugs that produce honeydew. Although honeydew does not meet the definition of honey, it’s certainly tasty and sweet enough to be enjoyed by humans.2
Although honeydew is collected by honey bees and stored in honeycombs like nectar, it is not nectar. Instead, honeydew is sap that is secreted by plants and eaten in impressive quantities by certain sap-sucking insects such as aphids and white flies. The sapsucking insects wound the surface of the plant, causing the sap to flow, then eat so much, so fast that the sap goes in one end and out the other essentially unchanged.
The end product — pun intended — is sticky and sweet and highly admired by honey bees. Being opportunists, the bees collect the pre-processed sap from the surface of the plants, then provide a bit more spit along with transportation and storage in honeycombs. Later, we harvest it, often unaware we are eating not plant secretions but insect excretions.3
Without these intermediary insects, nothing would be available for the bee to collect, so you can add aphids, whiteflies, and similar sapsuckers to the list of insects that provide food for humans.
Another widely consumed product is produced by the scale insect Kerria lacca. Like the honeydew producers, these insects ingest sap from plants and excrete a substance from the back end of the digestive tract. The substance, known as lac, is the source of shellac, lacquer, and natural varnish.
Although most sources list lac as a secretion, an article in the Journal of Zoology clarifies by saying, “The lac of commerce originates as an excretion (in the sense of excreta) exuded by the scale from the anal orifice.”4 This substance dries and forms a protective cocoon-like covering for the young, which can later be scraped from the branches where it collects.
Traditionally, the lac was harvested and used in varnish, cosmetics, and even perfume. However, modern techniques of filtering and refining have produced a purified product known as confectioner’s glaze or pharmaceutical glaze that is used to coat candies and pills. It is also used to polish raw fruit to keep it shiny and attractive for the consumer. If you’re squeamish, don’t over-think this. Just chase your daily vitamin with lots of water.
Insects as food
So far, we’ve looked at many different insects that accumulate syrups and saps which mankind has a history of eating. Just for fun, I’d like to also mention some of the bugs we eat every day.
What’s that? You don’t eat bugs? Let’s march into your kitchen for a closer look.
The scale bug, Dactylopius coccus, is a parasite of the prickly pear cactus. After the female bug eats large quantities of the crimson cactus flowers, the fluffy white insect turns blood red on the inside — a trait not so great for her personal safety.
Historically, these insects were simply collected, dried, and powdered into the bright red dye called cochineal. Later, an enhanced purification process was designed that ….