When I talk about my work, most people are surprised that I can rear insects and make a career out of it. But in fact, there are many reasons for wanting to breed insects.
Doing scientific research
A number of universities and research centers breed insects to study animal behavior, interactions among insects, their ecological role and the damage they do to plants. Beneficial insects are also bred and then released into fields or greenhouses (biological control).
Describing new species
When a new insect species is discovered, its biological cycle has to be described, meaning the time the insect takes to develop from egg to adult and the type of metamorphosis it undergoes. Raising the species is often indispensable for documenting its feeding, its reproduction and the usefulness of certain structures: outsized feet, say, or horns.
Some insects can also offer us resources. We need only think of silk – a textile manufactured by the silkworm, the caterpillar of the Bombyx mori moth – or the honey produced by worker bees. Insects’ shells (or exoskeletons), composed of chitin, are used in a broad range of applications such as burn treatment (because of their healing properties) or, thanks to their absorbency, for cleaning polluted water.
Numerous countries around the world breed insects, just the way we raise chicken or cattle. Humans have always consumed insects, and currently more than two billion people feed on them every day. Their high nutritional value is well known, and entomophagy is gaining steadily in popularity in industrialized countries.
Promoting and conserving insect biodiversity
At the Insectarium de Montréal we breed insects with the goal of presenting them to the public. Through living exhibits we try to raise people’s awareness to the beauty and diversity of these insects, as well as to their importance for the environment.
Rearing insects is not always an easy thing, because some of them can’t be raised at all in captivity. Rearing an insect consists in giving it the best possible food at each stage of its life (larva or adult) and also creating the best environment for it to want to breed. It also means spending a lot of time observing its behavior in order to give it enough space to fly, soil if it likes to burrow, dead wood if it likes to dig, and so on.
Certain of the insects we raise require very special treatment. To cite one example, for some beetle larvae we have to prepare a soil with the right proportions of compost, dead wood salvaged at a precise stage of decomposition, and oak leaves.
A little anecdote: A curious passerby wondered what my colleague and I were doing collecting dead wood. When it was explained to him how beetle larvae feed, he laughed and said, “You’re like chefs!” And in fact, cooking for insects is part of our day-to-day work. A lot of the insects we rear feed on fruit and vegetables, which have to be cut up and placed in feeders almost every day. Other insects are entirely phytophagous, so we grow their favorite plants. But we do much more than feed them. We also do research on new species or on rare species never raised in captivity!
All this knowledge is what we deliver to science and to the general public when we rear insects.
- Société chimique de France
- Afton Halloran and Paul Vantomme, La contribution des insectes à la sécurité alimentaire, aux moyens de subsistance et à l'environnement, Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, read in November 2019.