What’s on your plate? Oh, just a few thousand years of experimentation, observation, and ingenuity!
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Indigenous American innovation has inspired the foods we eat, Appalachian traditions, medicine and engineering just to name a few. In this latest podcast from High Touch High Tech we dive deep into discussion of the science and history behind why beans, corn and squash are such important staple foods today. We hope this inspires you to explore our history and the contributions of the Indigenous People of the Americas. The scientific advancement of these civilizations are the foundation for food culture across the world. Exploring the legend of the Three Sisters and the practices behind the legend may point the way toward a sustainable future.
On a Spring evening when the air is moist and the nights are getting warmer, I can go outside with a flashlight, shine it on the grass, and see so many earthworms pulling themselves back into the tunnels they have created in the soil. They love my yard because it is full of composting chicken and duck manure from the escapades the domestic birds had in the days before. If you listen closely, you can even hear them moving in the soil! It’s interesting to think that the composted duck and chicken manure is feeding the worms that the chickens and ducks love to eat. I have created an ecosystem that feeds itself.
Earthworms are a terrestrial invertebrate found in the soil with segmented setae (bristled body parts to help the earthworm from slipping backwards) on all the segments of their body. They spend their days eating organic matter including protozoa, rotifers, bacteria, and fungi. Their digestive system runs the length of their bodies, and they respire through their skin. They are hermaphrodites, meaning they contain both sex organs. Though they can reproduce without a mate, they prefer having one. Upon which they exchange sperm and develop eggs.
There are about 3000 species of earthworms worldwide. They can be found almost everywhere there is moist soil. Most of today’s earthworms arrived from Europe, most likely from the soil in rootstocks of plants during shipment.
Earthworms appear white, grey, pink, or reddish brown. They can range in size depending on species anywhere from ½” to a whopping 10 feet! The biggest ones can be found in Australia. They are a cold-blooded creature and assume the temperature of their surroundings. They are true worms, meaning they hatch as tiny worms and grow to adulthood without instar stages like that of the beetle or fly.
The lifecycle of the earthworms is as follows: they begin as an egg, emerge as a tiny baby, grow to a juvenile, and then become an adult. They can live up to 8 years. The hatchling is a tiny white and threadlike. As they grow into a juvenile, they began to develop colors of grey or reddish brown. When they become adults the band around the upper part of their body develops. This is called the clitellum, and this is the area in which reproduction organs exist. An adult worm after mating lays up to a dozen eggs at a time. The eggs are laid in the soil and are contained in a tiny egg sac that is the sloughed off part of the clitellum. After a 15-day incubation the hatchling emerges. It takes around 60 days for the earthworm to grow into an adult. Then the reproduction process begins all over again.
What are some uses for earthworms? Well, the most useful thing they do is to decompose organic matter creating frass, worm manure. The frass is an amazing fertilizer that is sold for anywhere from $1 to $5 a pound. It is a viable compost that can be applied directly to plant beds and potted plants as well. Earthworms make good fish bait. That is a whole market all its own. Also, as I said before the chickens and ducks love them! They are an excellent source of protein and minerals. They are eaten by humans in China and the Philippines. In Fujian and Guangdong province they are considered a delicacy. In Southern Venezuela the Ye Khanna people gather them from mud, gut and boil them to eat in dishes and sometimes smoked. They are also eaten by the Māori people of New Zealand. Its is reported that they have an unsurprising earthy flavor.
As we approach sustainability, other protein and mineral sources come into our view that are much less impactful upon the earth. If you have chickens and ducks, consider creating a worm farm in a plastic or wooden bin. Or if your property is set up like mine the earthworm farm is the whole yard enabling your domestic birds to feast as they desire. Overall, the earthworm is a fascinating decomposer that is accessible for study or for a snack, directly under our feet.
All life fits into an ecosystem somewhere. Even what some may consider an annoying creature has a role to play in our intricate and interconnected world. One of those “annoying” creatures is the fly. However, the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) doesn’t have the typical characteristics of the annoying housefly that interrupts your lunch and quiet while you sleep. In fact, they are beneficial in ways beyond the niche they fill in our ecological community.
So, this fly is a bit different in appearance to the common housefly. The adults measure about 5/8 inch long. They have a predominantly black body with metallic blue to green on the thorax and a reddish-brown abdomen. They have a wide head and very developed eyes. Their habits are different as well. They don’t buzz around and land on your doughnut releasing digestive juices and bacteria like the housefly. Instead, they are much calmer, can be caught easily, and the spreading of pathogens isn’t a problem. They prefer hiding if they are able. Their metabolic rate isn’t as high, so they fly around less.
The life cycle of a black soldier fly begins as an egg. The eggs incubate for about 3 days. The entire life cycle can take anywhere from 44-73 days. The time for each stage is dependent upon temperatures and food access. Warmer temperatures are best for the quickest stage development. During the larval stage they may go through 6 instars or stages of shedding and growth. This process takes about 14 days. Then they pupate for 1-2 weeks before emerging as a fully formed black soldier fly. Then they mate, lay eggs and the whole process begins again.
The larvae eat almost constantly, breaking up particles with their mouth parts. Eating in masses together they stir up their food and heat it up with the energy they give off thus increasing the rate of compost. They love compost, household organic waste and manure. They can quickly reduce a compost pile by 50% if the weather is warm. As adults they move less and mostly drink liquids. Their main goal is mating and laying eggs.
In nature the black soldier fly can usually be found around livestock and farms due to their desire for compost and manure. This attribute can be utilized in and around homesteads, small city chicken coops, compost piles and farms.
The larvae have many uses. These include feed for poultry, fish, pigs, lizards, turtles and are sometimes incorporated into dog food. They have a nice balance of healthy fats, nutrients, and amino acids. So, for this reason could they be used for human food? Absolutely. It is reported that when cooked they smell like cooked potatoes, have a crispier outside and a soft yummy inside with a nutty meaty taste. Yum!!! In 2013 Austrian designer, Katharina Unger, produced a tabletop insect breeding farm called Farm 432 (https://katharinaunger.com/farm-432-insect-breeding) that can produce a bit over a pound of larvae a week. The larvae are not only a nutritious protein filled meal for us but is also used to produce chitin, a polymer derived from glucose, to aid in removing biofouling (organic buildup) from pipes and the hulls of ships. The larvae manure is called frass and has its own use as organic fertilizer. Nothing goes wasted in nature.
Image credit: pixabay
You could even set up a self-feeding or collection station for your pigs, chickens, and ducks. In an existing contained compost bin, you could construct a ridged tube from the bottom of the bin that leads to a bucket outside. The larvae have a natural tendency to climb. Use that aspect and give them a tube to crawl up and simply set a bucket at the end for them to drop into. Or just let the chickens and ducks wait at the end for a snack.
In conclusion, we have examined the lifecycle, and many uses of the larvae for Hermetia illucens. Get innovative and construct your own chicken food producing station. You can do it with minimal engineering knowledge and just a visit to the hardware store. Explore a sustainable source of protein to create culinary delights such as larvae burgers and crunchy bits for salads and stews. As you snack you can revel in the knowledge that this less buzzy fly has not only a niche in nature, but a place in our world as we move closer to sustainability.