Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Year

Baby Bug in Thailand

When I had to leave for Thailand, I was shaking with nerves. My instincts told me to not leave something good when I had found it, and I had found several good things in Australia. I was surrounded by people who felt like family and in an environment where I was finally raising wasps for biological control. But now it was time to leave and start over. In order to shake the despair about concluding the Australian chapter of my Watson year, I thought of the insects I would find and carried myself forward into the unknown.

My last day in Australia at the top of a gorge in Northern Queensland.

Upon arrival though I instantly made friends from the airport, excitedly talking about all I had learned about insects of Australia and their potential for biological control. With new friends, I then traveled to a major market in Bangkok where under my influence, everyone tried and enjoyed eating scorpions and crickets. 

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This first day in Thailand is one example of what I hold onto if I ever find myself paralyzed with fear or stress. All I need to do is start discussing or looking for insects. My shoulders relax and my words flow out of me like a song. It is the same feeling that I found when investigating the mounted specimens of Frederick Parkhurst Dodd, a famous Australian insect collector the 1920’s.

“And whenever the way seemed long,

Or his heart began to fail,

SHE would sing a more wonderful song,

Or tell a more marvelous tale.”- H.W. Longfellow, 1857

This stanza of Longfellow’s poem was written out in butterflies in one of Dodd’s largest display cases. This large case, tucked away at the Queensland Museum, sticks in my mind a symbol of the possibilities that studying nature has for relieving stress and anxieties of others.

“And whenever the way seemed long, Or his heart began to fail, SHE would sing a more wonderful song, Or tell a more marvellous tale.”- Longfellow, 1857; written in butterflies collected and arranged by F.P. Dodd

For now, this idea stays with me as a reminder of the potential of my passion. I can never know or see every insect, instead I have countless wonders before me. Equipped with my passion and optimism, I began seeking out any form of insect related culture in Thailand and on January 1st, my best friend from home, Allison Monroe joined me on my project. Together we found insects to eat, study, wear, and admire in Bangkok, Ayuthaya, and Chiang Mai.

Allison’s first edible insect: a crunchy and tasty grasshopper. Photo taken outside JJ Market in Bangkok, Thailand.
‘Melang’ is insect in Thai and helped us find this vendor. All insects are fried and most were purchased from farms in Chiang Mai. His collection here, seen in Bangkok, consists of grasshoppers, silk moth chrysalises, bamboo worms, and two varieties of crickets (in back).
Some insects were sold in small containers for their novelty. This was at a local market near the Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We asked others who tried the insects from this booth and all approved. All insects are fried with salt and panadang leaves.

Allison is both my friend and apprentice as she shares a similar love for insects. Given that my family cannot afford to visit me during my Watson year, I gratefully shared my visiting time and this adventure with Allison. It was refreshing to travel with a familiar friend and someone who could also spend 4 hours looking at insect specimens or getting lost in the woods hunting for stick insects. 

Our time together helped confirmed Allison’s interests in entomology. Allison has conducted the same internship at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History where she learned parasitoid wasp taxonomy and assisted in identifying collections from Madagascar. She has also recently been awarded a Student Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) grant for a biodiversity survey of insects in Arkansas. But I remember when I first met Allison and helped to confirm her interest in entomology. She enjoyed catching and observing insects, but never considered this interest to be a possible future career. Seeing the same doubt I had about becoming an entomologist, I have worked to supply Allison with exposure to different insects and applications of entomology that will help her decide if studying insects is the right path for her.

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We interviewed female entomologists, Dr. Ponpiniji and Nongpanga Pachey at Kasetsart University and to learn how the Thai government is working to recover Mouhotia (rainbow stag) beetles and finally conducting surveys of other insect populations after their previous king stressed a national value for the environment. Dr. Pachey rejoiced in meeting young female entomologists and shared stories of how she travels to the forest to record populations of Mouhotia beetles, but how difficult they are to find since insect collectors have over-hunted them in the wild. It was fascinating to see these rare beetles and exciting for all of us to come together. Pachey and Ponpiniji told Allison and I that most girls were too scared to do field work in Thailand and many parents raise their children to fear insects, especially girls. An inherent curiosity and a bit of a stubborn nature in Pachey and Ponpiniji lead to their current professions. 

Dr. Pachey and her Mouhotia beetles (pinned and alive) for research on their taxonomy and ecology.
Our visit with Dr. Ponpiniji and Pachey at Kasetsart University just North of Bangkok.

Encouraged by these two accomplished ladies, Allison and I continued our investigations on entomophagy in Thailand by travelling North to Chiang Mai. Nestled between two national parks, Chiang Mai was far more promising in finding insects. Mounted specimens from local insectaries were commonly sold in markets here while fried crickets, bamboo worms, grasshoppers, and silk moth chrysalis could be found on the occasional food cart.

Crickets, silk moth chrysalis, and grasshoppers sold just outside a market as a late night snack. Note the water beetles in the bottom right corner.

Surprisingly, insects were not as commonly eaten in Thailand as papers and articles made me believe. Even still they are farmed and are a popular snack among local Thai people. From what I’ve observed, the popularity of eating insects is primarily reserved for those who live closer to the forest, explaining why finding insects to eat was more of a rarity or tourist attraction in Bangkok. Allison and I suspect that people who live closer to the forest are more likely to eat insects based on their familiarity with the creatures. Other insect dishes, like ant and wasp larvae were nowhere to be seen at this time of year as it was Thailand’s winter and the larvae were not in season. This did not discourage Allison and I from searching however, and along the way we talked to several locals and tourists about eating insects. Most were opposed to the idea, but of those who did try eating insects, they liked them and compared the snack to a potato chip.

Insect gallery in the Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Upon seeing this booth, Allison and I quickly had to take deep breaths and calm ourselves. We had never seen so many mounted specimens in one place and spent two hours looking at each collected piece.

Some of the insect jewelry and books found in the Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Each of us were overwhelmed by the diversity of insects captured for various items in this shop. Most insects were from Thailand and the remaining majority were Southeast Asian.

Another street vendor in Chiang Mai, selling mounted specimens probably purchased wholesale from a local dealer. Rumors of who sells these specimens suggested that only 6 girls are behind all of the spreading, dehydrating, and mounting.

Allison and I also interviewed entomologist, Dr. Wichai Srisuk who has been conducting an insect biodiversity survey of Thailand in Chiang Mai for the past 5 years. We browsed his collection in what he and his students call ‘his room,’ which is a large section of the research institute at Queen Sirikit Botanic Gardens, full of cabinets and drawers of mounted insects. He invited us to return and help him sort additional samples and welcomed us to borrow from his collection if we ever studied any Thai insects. Repeatedly, I have found community and hospitality among entomologists like this and it is continuously inspiring.

‘Diversity of Insects’ display at the Siam Insect Zoo in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Allison had to return home before my 23rd birthday on January 12th, but I happily sent her home full of new knowledge of insects, including how to cook them! It was sad to wake up expecting her to be with me, then remembering she was on her way home. But I got up, knowing that I had more joy ahead of me. The best birthday present for me was to be able to have shared a taste of what I have gotten to learn on my Watson year with someone else as passionate about insects as I am. I watched Allison’s interest grow and we both became closer friends as we traveled and took care of one another. Just as my interest was fostered by other entomologists, I have gotten foster the same interest in Allison, my baby bug.

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Amazed by the collections at the Siam Insect Zoo and Museum in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We have a lot to learn.
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She’s my baby bug!
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