Bodie Kellogg Opinion
Tacos of ant larvae. Provecho. Tacos of ant larvae. Provecho.

The bugs of Mexico: hail to the cockroach

It's an integral part of life while a cousin makes an uninviting filling for tacos

The tropical latitudes are described as the area between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Since my chosen city of residence lies about 20 kilometers south of the Tropic of Cancer, sometime around noon on the summer solstice the sun will be directly overhead, 90 degrees from all horizons.

This auspicious event ushers in the tropical summer that is famous for heat, humidity and bugs. The effects of the heat and humidity can be mitigated with air conditioning or by heading to higher elevations. But no matter where you are in Mexico, the monsoon season brings an impressive diversity of bichos tropicales, or tropical bugs.

From large and colorful spiders to pesky scorpions, from huge aerial swarms of termites to a horned beetle the size of a house cat, each state of this country will have its own bug of the week throughout the rainy season. But of all the exotic or terrifying insects found across Mexico, the most common one is here on a year-round basis.

The cockroach is probably the most reviled insect on the face of our planet. However, here in Mexico it has been celebrated in song and folk lore for centuries. I find this to be a truly emblematic cultural statement.

I read somewhere, years ago, that the cockroach is one of the few life forms that would survive a hundred-megaton nuclear blast. So it only follows that making roaches part of a cultural tradition early on was easier than any attempted eradication; a very Mexican solution.

Actually, the cockroach is a necessary component in urban ecosystems. These voracious vermin are omnivorous scavengers whose singular purpose is to consume the decaying macrobiotic matter in their immediate environment. They are like little urban garbage men scuttling about, ingesting bits and pieces of organic putrescence.

So, now knowing how these creatures service our communities, it’s time for us to acknowledge the cockroach as an integral and essential part of life in Mexico, and that it should at least be grudgingly tolerated. I am not suggesting we revere these squiggly foragers as the Chinese do the cricket, but understanding their purpose does make them a little less despicable.

Besides, since they are closely related to the lobster they can’t be all that bad. Not to be misconstrued, I am in no way suggesting that La Cucaracha is an edible bug. However, entomophagy is practiced in some parts of Mexico.

One comestible bug is known by several names, jumil, chinche de monte or xotlinilli, and is said to have a slight cinnamon flavor. These beetles are considered a delicacy, by those who have acquired the taste, and are found in the states of Morelos and Guerrero.

What gringos commonly regard as a type of stink bug is actually used as a filling for Mexico’s most ubiquitous food, the taco.

Since these cousins of the cockroach can live for several days after being decapitated and slowly cooked, you have to hold your taco at both ends to keep the filling from escaping. I have had some questionable tacos over the years, but I don’t think I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing the subtle flavors of a stink bug taco.

When my Captured Tourist Woman and I were at Teotihuacán we had lunch at a restaurant in a lava cave. The waiter told us it was our lucky day because they had a rare, gourmet treat available for our discerning palates. The chef came out to describe his presentation as the most delectable dish of escamoles in all of Mexico. Things were going along well until it was revealed that escamoles are ant larvae.

I have never thought of myself as a squeamish person, but I failed to regard this opportunity as fortuitously as our smiling chef and waiter. Do they wiggle? Can they hatch in a digestive environment?

After some light-hearted cajoling from My Captured Tourist Woman we split an order. When our plate of unborn ant arrived, I closely examined the little pupae trying to detect any movement. When I declared them to be dead enough to eat, the waiter quickly stated they were merely stunned; just eat quickly and chew thoroughly.

For about a week after the consumption of this questionable Mexican delicacy, I knew I could feel them hatching and crawling through my intestines.

If you live in an area that is habitat for leaf cutter ants, you don’t want any unscreened windows open during their brief seasonal migration. These winged ants can number in the thousands when they are swarming. Several varieties of these sophisticated bugs can be found throughout Mexico in areas with lush vegetation.

I call them sophisticated because they have evolved a system of fungus-based agriculture. The vegetable matter they collect is fodder for their fungus gardens deep in the underground nests. The fungus is ultimately used to feed the colony.

A large colony can contain several million ants and the colonies are literally everywhere. Out in the jungle the leaf cutter highways are stripes of bare ground 10 centimeters wide that run for hundreds of meters through the dense vegetation.

In urban areas, these ants cruise along sidewalks at night while they plot the destruction of someone’s patio plantings or roof garden.

The rush to renew life during the rainy season brings out several different types of bioluminescent bugs. The most spectacular of these is a large green beetle that if properly gripped can be used as a miniature flashlight. This beetle, which arrives sometime in July, puts out enough lumens to actually read by if held close to a printed page. It is the largest bioluminescent bug in the world at a full three centimeters in length.

So as you wile away your summer months, enjoy the ever-changing variety of butterflies, beetles, giant flies, huge moths and blinking lightning bugs. Of course, the pinche mosquitoes are also out, but that is a subject for another column.

Bodie Kellogg describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time on the west coast of Mexico with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half wild dog. If you wish to give him cold beer, large sacks of money or a piece of your mind, he can be reached at [email protected].

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