A book I have been reading was discussing the beginnings of agriculture in early civilizations. It talked about plants, of course, in the beginnings of farming. And it talked about the first animals that were domesticated as well. So—there were domesticated plants, domesticated animals, AND the author also said, “Domesticated Insects.”
That phrase threw me, at first. Exactly what are domesticated insects? Insects that are useful to humans? beneficial insects, such as pollinators in gardens? There are many plants and animals that are useful to humans but are not considered “domesticated.”
What are domesticated insects?
The first and best example provided in the book is the silkworm. The silk moth was discovered first in China. It has been domesticated for more than 2,000 years. For the silkmoth, this means it can no longer survive on its own in the wild. It is cared for by humans, who also control its reproduction. The silk moth is no longer able to reproduce on its own.
The second example in the book is the honeybee. Although it is possible for there to be honeybees that survive in the wild, most stay near human-controlled environments—farm and field. Humans build their homes, provide suitable floral foods, then reap the benefits of the hive—honey and beeswax.
I thought to myself, in all of 2,000 years, why only 2 species of insects are domesticated? There must be more? This is the list I came up with.
Silkworm—Fully domesticated, can no longer live in the wild on its own.
Honey bee—We build them hives, they give us honey, beeswax.
Semi-Domesticated: Bred by people for products associated with them.
India Lac insects—Shellac
Cochineal beetles—Red dyes, placed into plant heads, harvested.
Commercially Useful Insects
Leeches—Grown in captivity or collected for limited medical use
Flesh-eating Beetles—Grown in the lab for forensic work, stripping flesh from bones
Maggots—Grown in the lab for medical use
Nightcrawlers, fishing worms, earthworms in soil
Ladybugs for gardens, eat aphids and other insects
Nematodes—one beneficial kind for improving soil, but others damage plants
Flatworms or cockroaches for H.S. science dissection
Spider silk? Is this even viable?
Up for consideration: Ants?; Butterflies for aesthetics and collection; Tequila worm?
The list shows that there are really just a handful of insects whose products humans harvest and use. A few kinds of insects are eaten on a small scale by some cultures. Chocolate-covered ants aside, most are not eaten by humans. Insects do not train well, or at all, despite the imagination of a “flea” circus. And most are difficult or impossible for humans to control their reproduction. Hence, most insects are not domesticable.
There are millions of insect species in the world—a true diversity of forms. Yet still only the two are domesticated. Silk and honey, are wonderful, and I am thankful to those insects for lovely fabrics and delicious, nutritious, food, including the use of Honey as Medicine. Insects, of course, are an extremely important part of our biosphere. They have essential roles in all of nature. And, for humans, insects are fun to watch and really quite fascinating. Perhaps we should try to value them more for their entertainment value.