The Identity Of Grasshoppers Used As Food By Native American Tribes

Prior to the arrival of European influence, grasshoppers were an important item among the insect foods of existing cultures in western North America. This is not surprising as there are several hundred species, and some of them have a tendency, if unchecked, to frequently reach plague proportions. So, they were often available in abundance. There are at least 60 or 70 papers, mostly in the anthropological literature, that report consumption of grasshoppers (or “locusts”) by cultures north of Mexico. Nearly all of the reported use was in western North America; there are few reports from east of the Mississippi River.

Taxonomists place North American grasshoppers in about eight families (Otte 1981, 1984, and others), but the one best known to the most people is the family Acrididae, the shorthorned grasshoppers. These are allotted to one or another of several subfamilies. With hundreds of species to choose from, and numerous reports of grasshopper consumption, one might expect to compile a lengthy list of the species known to have been consumed. Not so. Here again we run into the familiar difficulties caused by the low estate in which insect consumption has been held by the European-derived mind. The same ethnographic, ethnohistorical, and archaeological reports that often went into great taxonomic detail about the plants and vertebrate animals encountered were much less precise when it came to insects, being satisfied with such taxonomic precision as “locusts”, “crickets”, “ants”, “caterpillars”, etc.

In fact only four authors from among those 60-70 papers provide any information on the specific identity of the grasshoppers consumed. The “mother lode” is Essig (1931). In mentioning that Essig was an entomologist, I do not mean to be critical of the level of insect taxonomy practiced by anthropolo-

gists. There are great difficulties attendant to studies aimed at elucidating what happened in earlier times (see Sutton 1988 for a discussion). And, besides, while anthropologists are always very precise about the tribal identities and relationships of the cultures they study, Essig listed his eight species of grasshoppers as being consumed by “California Indians.” The eight species are tabulated below:

Family Acrididae

Subfamily Oedipodinae
Camnula pellucida Scudder, Clear-winged grasshopper

Subfamily Catantopinae1
Melanoplus bivittatus (Say), Two-striped grasshopper
Melanoplus devastator Scudder, Devastating grasshopper
Melanoplus differentialis (Thomas), Differential grasshopper
Melanoplus femurrubrum (DeGeer), Red-legged grasshopper
Melanoplus sanguinipes (Fabr.), Lesser migratory grasshopper
Oedaloenotus enigma (Scudder), Valley grasshopper

Subfamily Crytacanthacridinae
Schistocerca shoshone Thomas)3, Large green valley grasshopper
1. Species assigned to the subfamily name Catantopinae above will apparently be assigned to the subfamily name Milanoplinae in the 3rd volume of Otte’s The North Anwrican Grasshoppers when it appears (see Otte 1981).
2. Reported as Melanoplus atlanis (Riley) by Essig.
3. Reported as Schistocerca venusta Scudder by Essig, which is probably synonymous with S. shoshone according to Strohecker et al (1968).
Abundance is an important factor in determining the choices of food by hunter/gatherer societies (Dufour 1987, and others). The Melanoplus species listed above, with the exception of M. devastator which is limited to the Pacific Coast states and Nevada, are all widely distributed in North America, are abundant, and destructive to vegetation (Capinera and Sechrist 1982, and others). Three of them are among the four species considered by Henderson (1944) to have been historically of the greatest economic importance to agriculture in Utah, listed in descending order of importance: Melanoplus sanguinipes (=M. mexicanus mexicanus (Saussure)), M. packardii Scudder, M.bivittatus, and M. femurrubrum. Henderson mentions specifically only three other species for their damage in Utah and they happen to be three more of the species reported by Essig as food: M. differentialis, 0. oedalonotus, and C. pellucida.

Others who have provided information on the specific identity of grasshoppers used as food include Ebeling (1986:157) who states that M. femurrubrum, M. devastator, and Arphia pseudonietana (Thomas) (the latter belongs to the subfamily Oedipodinae and brings the total of reported species to nine) were probably eaten in the Owens Valley; Madsen and Kirkman (1988) who reported large-scale use of M. sanguinipes in Utah, and Sutton (1988) who has attempted to identify the species most likely used on the basis of their abundance and ecology.

Western tribes used a variety of methods for harvesting grasshoppers. One of the better accounts is that of Chittenden and Richardson (1905, III, pp. 132-33) pertaining to the Soshocos:
They begin by digging a hole, ten or twelve feet in diameter by four or five deep; then, armed with long branches of artemisia, they surround a field of four or five acres, more or less, according to the number of persons who are engaged in it. They stand about twenty feet apart, and their whole work is to beat the ground, so as to frighten up the grasshoppers and make them bound forward. They chase them toward the centre by degrees– that is, into the hole prepared for their reception. Their number is so considerable that frequently three or four acres furnish sufficient grasshoppers to fill the reservoir or hole.

The basic procedure described by Chittenden and Richardson appears to have been widely used as a number of early writers have described incorporated it similarly, or variations on it. Sometimes fire was heated, as described by Dixon (1905, pp. 183-84, 190) for the Northern Maidu in the lower Sierra region:

Grasshoppers and locusts were eaten eagerly when they were to be had. The usual method of gathering them was to dig a large shallow pit in some meadow or flat, and then, by setting fire to the grass on all sides, to drive the insects into the pit. Their wings being burned off by the flames, they were helpless, and were thus collected by the bushel. They were then dried as they were. Thus prepared, they were kept for winter food, and were eaten either dry and uncooked or slightly roasted.

A variation of the above methods was related to Essig (1931) by a relative of his who lived in the Sacramento Valley in the early 1850s: “The method then used in that place was to build a large fire which was reduced to a bed of coals. The Indians then formed a large circle and drove the grasshoppers into the coals where they were soon roasted, removed and eaten at once or preserved for the future.” Aginsky (1943) reported several methods of grasshopper collection used by the Central Sierra Indians, one of which was simply to burn over the ground and pick them up. Non-firing methods included picking the grasshoppers from the grass and bushes early in the morning before they became active (Downs 1966, p. 35) and fortuitous collecting of grasshoppers that washed up in windrows along the shores of saline lakes (Madsen and Kirkman 1988, and others).

Although only nine species have apparently been reported specifically as food, when one considers the harvest methods used by the Indians, there can be little doubt that dozens of additional species were consumed. Ordinarily, at any given time and place, if grasshoppers are active there is a mixture of species present. For example, the range grasshopper complex at five sites in the shortgrass prairie of southeastern Wyoming was found to be comprised of 16-18 species at each site (Pfadt 1977). For another example, to procure grasshoppers for proximate and mineral analysis, the author and Dr. J.B. Campbell of the University of Nebraska spent several days in August, 1979, sweep-netting in a field near North Platte in western Nebraska and netted a total of 16 species representing 11 genera. If we had tried to drive these hoppers onto a hot bed of coals, I am sure that mixed among our Melanoplus sanguinipes, etc., there would have been some Melanoplus packardii Scudder, some Melanoplus foedus (Scudder), some Aulocara, some of the huge wingless Boopedon females, some Dissosteira, etc., etc., etc. Except for a few aposematic species which might not taste good, the early anthropologists probably had the right idea – a grasshopper is a grasshopper when it comes to eating them.
For the backpacker headed for the higher elevations between late June and late August in the western or northern United States or southern Canada, the clear-winged grasshopper, Camnula pellucida, is the snack to watch for – According to Essig it is the most abundant species in the high mountain meadows throughout California, and according to Capinera and Sechrist it is common at higher elevations in Colorado. For the more sedentary citizen almost anywhere in the United States, the Melanoplus species, bivattatus, differentialis, femurrubrum, and sanguinipes frequently move into the suburbs in sufficient numbers to give them pest status, and it is increasingly agreed that biocontrol in the form of predators is preferable to insecticides in the garden. See the recipes on page 3 for how to fix them if you can catch them.

-Aginsky, B.W. 1943. Culture element distributions: XXIV-Central Sierra. Univ. Calif. Publs, Anthropol. Rec. 8(4):393-468.
-Capinera, JL.; Sechrist, T.S. 1982, Grasshoppers (Acrididae) of Colorado.
Identification, biology and management. Colo. St. Univ. Expt. Sta. Bull. No. 584s, pp. 1-161

-Chittenden, H.M.; Richardson, A.D. 1905. Life, Letters and Travels of Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, SJ., 1801-1873. New York: Harper, pp. 1032-33.
-Dixon, R.B. 1903. The Huntington California Expedition. The Northern Maidu. Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist. 17 (part III): 183-184, 190.
-Downs, J.F. 1966. The Two Worlds of the Washo. An Indian Tribe of California and Nevada. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston Inc., p. 35.
-Dufour, D.L. 1987. Insects as food., a case study from the northwest Amazon. Am. Anthropologist 89(2).383-97.
-Ebeling, W. 1986. Handbook of Indian Foods and Fibers of Arid America. Berkeley: Univ. Calif Press.
-Essig, E.O. 1931. A History of Entomology. New York: Macmillan, pp. 23-41.
-Henderson, W.W. 1944. Four devastating Melanopli found in Utah. Great Basin Nat. 5:1-22.
-Madsen D.B.; Kirkman, LE. 1988. Hunting hoppers. Am. Antiquity 53:593-604.
-Otte, D. 198 1. The North American Grasshoppers. Vol. I Acrididae:

Gomphocerinae and Acridinae. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard Univ. Press, 275 pp.
-Otte, D. 1984. The North American Grasshoppers. Vol.Il .Acrididae. Oedopodinae. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard Univ. Press, 366 pp.
-Pfadt, R.E. 1977. Some aspects of the ecology of grasshopper populations inhabiting the shortgrass plains. In Kulmam 4 H.M.; Chiang, H.C. (eds.), Insect Ecology – Papers Presented in the A.C.
Hodson Lectures. Univ Minn. Agric. Expt. Sta. Tech. Bull. 310, pp. 73-79.
-Strohecker, H.; Middlekamp, W.W.; Rentz, D.C. 1968. The grasshoppers of California (Orthoptera: Acridoidea). BuU. Calif. Insect Surv. 10:1-177.

Edible insects must be gaining in prestige…

Baskets of edible insects are not an unusual sight in the markets of the tropical world. But Dr. Ralph Bram, USDA, Beltsville, MD, who has seen, for example, baskets of the giant water-bug (Belostomatidae) for sale in the Sunday market of Bangkok, wrote recently to say that he had encountered baskets of edible insects in a most unexpected place–Zurich, Switzerland! They were adult beetles. And one more surprise – they were not dipped in chocolate! We would like to carry this suspense further, but to be truthful, the beetles were made entirely of chocolate. Although not versed in European beetle taxonomy, from the documentary colored photograph sent by Dr. Bram, the editor guesses them to be the European chafer or Maybeetle, Melolontha melolontha, and they look authentic enough, right down to the details of the tarsal segments, to run easily through a taxonomic key.

We are not sure what this portends for the future of edible insects in Europe and North America, but if chocolate candies are now being shaped to look like real insects, instead of real insects being disguised by dipping them in chocolate, progress is surely being made.

Two Easy Grasshopper Recipes-

An article caught our eye recently in the Newsletter of the Department of Entomology, University of Minnesota (April 20,1989). Titled “Fried Cow or Fried Locust-What’s the Diff ?,’ and authored by The Creeping Gourmet, it presented two recipes that are so quick and simple that we thought we should pass them along. As acknowledged by Gourmet, they first appeared in Ronald Taylor’s book, Butterflies in My Stomach, or Insects in Human Nutrition (1975, Woodbridge Press, Santa Barbara, Calif., pp.107-108).

Fried Locusts Grasshopper Fritters
a. pluck off the wings and legs (heads optional) a. pluck off wings and legs (heads optional)
b. sprinkle with salt pepper, and chopped parsley b. dip insects in egg batter and deep fry
c. fry in butter c. salt and serve
d. add a dash of vinegar and serve
Although grasshoppers were used extensively as food by Native American tribes in western North America, little is known about which species were preferred—if there was any preference. One way of harvesting the insects was for a number of people to form a large circle around a bed of coals and then drive the hoppers toward the bed of coals, where, hopefully, some would land and be roasted. As there are usually several species of range grasshoppers present at any one time and location, probably any roasted hopper was a good hopper (see above article).