Eating insects was no joke to Gene DeFoliart. That’s likely why he declined offers to appear on late-night TV talk shows hosted by Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Arsenio Hall to discuss the subject. But he was more than happy to talk about it to reporters from the New York Times, the Wall St. Journal, USA Today and other major news venues, because he was passionate about the potential of insects as a bountiful, high-protein food source for humans. Much of the media attention came in 1992, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the New York Entomological Society, which included a “Centennial Bug Banquet.” DeFoliart gave the after-dinner talk, titled “Insects are food: Where has the western world been?”
DeFoliart, professor emeritus of entomology, died on Jan. 3 at the age of 87.
Despite all of the notice he received for his interest in entomophagy—insects as food—the main focus of DeFoliart’s career was on the more nefarious side of this class of arthropods. In fact it bothers some of his longtime CALS colleagues that the attention paid to his work on edible insects tended to overshadow his significant accomplishments and leadership in the field of medical and veterinary entomology, specifically in the area of mosquito-borne viruses—more specifically, on the La Crosse encephalitis virus. He received many honors for this research, including the 1998 Hoogstraal Medal by the American Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene for outstanding achievement in this field.
His interest in insects as food was sparked in the 1970s and continued long after he retired in 1991. He was the founder and original editor of the Food Insects Newsletter and published a number of articles on the topic for peer-reviewed journals. Copies are available at his website, www.food-insects.com. In 2010 DeFoliart “appeared” via a YouTube video at a symposium called Entomophagy Reconsidered, in which he recalled how he got interested in this line of study and read a quote that he used to introduce his early presentations on the topic:
“C. F. Hodge (1911) calculated that a pair of house flies beginning operations in April could produce enough flies, if all survived, to cover the earth 47 feet deep by August. This, of course, is an ecological absurdity but it does convey some idea of the tremendous reproductive potential of some insects. If one can reverse for a moment the usual focus on insects as enemies of man, Hodge’s layer of flies represents an impressive pile of animal protein.”