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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

‘Swarm to Table’ inspires insect acceptance

From eating cricket Chex Mix to painting with maggots, attendees embraced their curiosity at this event.

 Have you ever wondered what it'd be like to eat a bug? The notion may seem strange, but on Saturday, 300 people gathered at The Crossing to do just that. 

Swarm to Table is an annual event hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Undergraduate Entomology Society (UES), Slow Food UW and Mission to Improve Global Health Through Insects (MIGHTi). 

Organizers describe Swarm to Table as “a celebration of insects in food, art and human culture, with a gourmet tasting menu, presentations, activities, prizes and more.” This year’s events ranged from participating in insect trivia to sipping water bug cider. The celebration featured speakers including Dr. Valerie Stull, an entomophagy researcher at UW-Madison, and Dr. Barrett Klein, an artist and insect researcher at UW-La Crosse. 

Members of the UES had been planning these activities since October, according to UES President Claire Lawler.

“We’ve been working on this event for months, and the last couple of days have been the most chaotic,” said Lawler. “But now that we’re here, everything is running smoothly and I’m not even nervous anymore.” 

While seeing countless hours of hard work cumulate into a seamless afternoon might be the most fulfilling part of Swarm to Table for the organizers, the highlight for many participants is the insect tasting menu. Crafted by local chef Andrew Jack, it features five courses and one drink. 

Guests started off their palate with a bamboo worm and cricket “Chex Mix” before moving on to mealworm sourdough bread with a selection of insect spreads. From there, they indulged in blackened cricket fritters topped with a fried scorpion and silkworm based aioli. Finally, the adventurous diners experienced mealworm tempeh with weaver ant egg lemon meringue pie for dessert. 

Does this menu entice you, or do you need some water bug cider to wash these dishes down? If you do, you’re not alone. However, volunteer chef Toby Lunt believes in a couple of years, insect dining may not be so taboo. 

“Cultural food traditions and expectations are arbitrary to where you were born and what you consider to be disgusting versus what you consider to be normal and beautiful,” Lunt said. “Thirty years ago sushi was seen as gross in America, but now it doesn’t carry that same connotation.” 

For those interested in taking the leap and biting into bugs, Stull offers some scientific encouragement. The environmental scientist and global health professional said “most insects provide all nine amino acids needed in the human diet.” They also contain dietary fiber and the possibility of being gluten, soy and dairy free depending on what they’re fed. 

In addition to these positive impacts on human health, insect cuisine is good for the planet. Stull estimates 90% of edible insects are wild-foraged. This can carry risks like overharvesting, deforestation and pesticides, but is overall advantageous. For example, insect agriculture has planetary benefits like a smaller carbon footprint, less use of land and water and more biomass compared to traditional agriculture. 

Swarm to Table attendee Sigra Deweese recognized these benefits and enjoyed this year’s mealworm bread despite identifying as vegetarian. 

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“I’m really interested in insects as a sustainable protein source, so I’m not opposed to eating them,” said Deweese. “I just wish I had more access to them outside of this event.”

Aside from ethical eating, Swarm to Table also draws a crowd by way of insect art. People of all skill levels can participate in maggot painting, a popular activity this year. 

“You dip the maggot in the paint and it squirms around on the paper, making little lines,” student Olivia Kroeplin said. 

Kroeplin and many others created bug-related artwork for the Swarm to Table art gallery, a space for local artists to showcase and sell their work. This year’s display included prints, sculptures and even jewelry. 

Artist Allyson Mills uses earrings to bring awareness to declining bumblebee populations.

“I learned about rusty patched bumblebees a few years ago, which are in Wisconsin but very endangered,” Mills said. “So instead of just making regular bee earrings, I added orange to bring awareness to the rusty patched ones.” 

Even if you’re not skilled in jewelry making or blessed with bravery when it comes to trying new foods, Swarm to Table still has something for everyone. Bug costume contests, insect agriculture career panels and growing mealworm demos brought smiles to many faces this weekend. 

Next time you find yourself wondering about the world of insects, consider attending the next Swarm to Table event. The atmosphere is charged with curiosity that is bound to inspire you in some way. 

“When we host Swarm to Table next year, everyone should come,” Lawler said. “Insects are nothing to be scared of, and so many people surprise themselves at this event.” 

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