Atlanta Science Fest says eating bugs is science, and science is good

Akissi Stokes carries a handful of what might be the food the future. Her start-up, WunderGrubs, markets the larvae of darkling beetles, also called mealworms, as a high-protein food for people. Roasted and ground into powder, the larvae can boost the nutrition in cookies, pancakes and other baked goods. (That's a WunderGrubs cookie in her other hand.) (Tyson A. Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

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Akissi Stokes carries a handful of what might be the food the future. Her start-up, WunderGrubs, markets the larvae of darkling beetles, also called mealworms, as a high-protein food for people. Roasted and ground into powder, the larvae can boost the nutrition in cookies, pancakes and other baked goods. (That's a WunderGrubs cookie in her other hand.) (Tyson A. Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Science will take you to some strange and interesting places.

One place you might visit, if you’re taking part in the Atlanta Science Festival (beginning March 12) is a gaily-painted shipping container that is the headquarters of WunderGrubs.

Parked on a concrete pad near the southeast corner of Piedmont Park, it has been transformed, with windows and doors, into a tiny office with built-in cabinets, seating, shelving, shadowboxes and murals showing different insects and their life cycles.

In a storage area at the rear is a plastic container with perhaps 100,000 larvae from the darkling beetle (Tenebrio molitor).

The darkling larvae, also called mealworms, are about an inch long, brownish yellow, and delicious.

Or so says Akissi Stokes, co-founder of WunderGrubs. “It tastes like a nut, like a cashew or a pine nut,” she says. Eaten live, as a snack, or cooked to a crunchy goodness, the larvae are also good roasted and ground into a protein-rich powder that can be added to cookies, pancakes and other baked goods.

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Akissi Stokes talks about WunderGrubs in the shipping container that houses her startup. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Akissi Stokes talks about WunderGrubs in the shipping container that houses her startup. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Akissi Stokes talks about WunderGrubs in the shipping container that houses her startup. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

In other words, at Stokes’ place, when they rustle up some grub, they really mean grub.

Brave children (and their parents) can sample insect cuisine on March 19, when the Atlanta Science Fest hosts a visit to WunderGrubs.

The opportunity to nosh on worms is one of more than 100 events sponsored by the festival, which continues through March 26.

Among the other events will be a salamander stroll, a crash course in the hard science of “Roadside Geology,” a wild competition for inventors of musical instruments at Georgia Tech and several opportunities for a “geocaching adventure.” (For more information go to atlantasciencefestival.org.)

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The Atlanta Science Festival begins March 12 and runs through March 26, and will include geology, robotics and the cultivation of insects for food. Photos: Rob Felt/Atlanta Science Festival

Credit: Rob Felt

The Atlanta Science Festival begins March 12 and runs through March 26, and will include geology, robotics and the cultivation of insects for food. Photos: Rob Felt/Atlanta Science Festival

Credit: Rob Felt

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The Atlanta Science Festival begins March 12 and runs through March 26, and will include geology, robotics and the cultivation of insects for food. Photos: Rob Felt/Atlanta Science Festival

Credit: Rob Felt

Credit: Rob Felt

Why is roasting an immature beetle considered science? Here’s why: There are many lessons to be learned from this new food source, said Stokes.

The first is about sustainability.

Raising food for our meat-heavy diet is pushing the world to an ecological precipice. Forests in South America continue to be clear-cut to raise beef; farming animals is water-intensive; cattle also eat almost half the crops raised worldwide; we trade 30 calories of plant material to create a single calorie of beef.

If humans develop a taste for insects, it would open up a new food source that requires drastically less water, land and resources.

“We can grow the equivalency of a cow — in protein — in a closet,” said Stokes. The bugs need no water or light; they get all the moisture they need from the starchy vegetables they eat. (They can also eat newspaper, Styrofoam and low-resin plastics.)

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Darkling beetle larvae, also called mealworms, require no water to grow, only the moisture in the starchy vegetables that they eat. They also prefer the dark. When roasted and ground into a powder, they have a shelf-life up to a year. (Tyson A. Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne

Darkling beetle larvae, also called mealworms, require no water to grow, only the moisture in the starchy vegetables that they eat. They also prefer the dark. When roasted and ground into a powder, they have a shelf-life up to a year. (Tyson A. Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne

Combined ShapeCaption
Darkling beetle larvae, also called mealworms, require no water to grow, only the moisture in the starchy vegetables that they eat. They also prefer the dark. When roasted and ground into a powder, they have a shelf-life up to a year. (Tyson A. Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne

Credit: Tyson Horne

Developing a market for renewable darkling beetle grubs could address a handful of the most serious problems facing the world in the next half-century, including the proliferation of greenhouse gases, climate change, a growing scarcity of water, the loss of forest habitat and food insecurity.

The trick, of course, is to get people to eat bugs.

By coincidence, as the AJC was preparing this story, a friend of the newspaper sent a Facebook post from Mexico City, showing photos of a feast of street food, including platters of fried grasshoppers. Many cultures, said Stokes, consider insects a familiar, comforting food.

Meisa Salaita, co-founder and co-executive director of the Science Festival said the visit to WunderGrubs is a great example of the essential Science Fest event. “What we try to do with so many of our events is find connections to other elements of life, and food is an element everybody cares about.”

As to the question of getting people to eat mealworms, or crickets, or grasshoppers, Salaita said the possibility is not as farfetched as it might seem.

Fifty years ago many Americans found eating raw fish to be unimaginable. Today sushi is part of the every-day vocabulary of lunch and supper. “If Americans can embrace sushi the way we do now, hopefully we can lean into a more sustainable way of eating, and nibble on some crickets,” said Salaita.

Stokes, 59, grew up on the Duke University campus, but as a youngster moved with her mom to her grandfather’s farm in Thomasville. “He was a sharecropper, but he amassed a 200-acre farm. He got his 40 acres and a mule and then some,” she said.

Young Akissi spent her mornings slopping hogs, cleaning chicken coops and planting truck gardens. “I was connected to the earth,” she said. “Sustainability was a way of life for us, not just a trend.”

At Emory University she met Karim Nelson, who became her life partner and her business partner. The two applied for agriculture technology grants, and WunderGrubs became a reality, with the help of their 17-year-old daughter, Sierra-Nicole.

Today WunderGrubs is diversifying its client base, marketing the darkling protein powder to other insect food retailers, and to aquaculture outfits as fish food.

The couple frequently talk to school kids and host summer camp groups, and they’ve discovered that children are often more open-minded than adults when it comes to eating insects.

“When I would do summer camps, if I ate a live grub, they were in,” said Stokes. “All it took was one brave kid, and the rest of class fell like dominoes.”


PREVIEW

Atlanta Science Festival

“Bugs & Bytes: Exploring Insect Farming as Food of the Future,” takes us on a visit to WunderGrubs, 10 a.m. to noon and 2-4 p.m. Saturday, March 19; $11; 1016 Monroe Drive. Register through the Atlanta Science Festival website, atlantasciencefestival.org. The event is part of the Atlanta Science Festival, which hosts more than 100 events from March 12-26. Go to atlantasciencefestival.org.