BANGKOK, Thailand - Throughout the centuries, many a tale has been told of plagues of locusts that destroyed crops and left farmers destitute. Humans have fought back, resulting in a worldwide industry to eradicate these and other crop-eating pests.
Thailand has found a novel way to solve the problem: Eat the bugs.
Here, the demand for crop-eating pests and other insects has soared to such an extent in the past decade that a pound of locusts commands a better price than a pound of corn.
Thai farmers can earn between $4.62 and $9.24 for just over 2 pounds of locusts compared with a miserly 12 cents for the same amount of corn.
In fact, demand has outstripped the country's capacity to supply consumers with the insects. During lean times, Thailand must import them from neighboring Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.
In addition, the University of Khon Kaen in northeastern Thailand has pioneered techniques of farming locusts and crickets, while an institute of technology in Sakon Nakhon has developed new ways of canning insects.
But it is not only locusts and crickets that appeal to the Thais. Silkworms, water bugs, grasshoppers, ants, ant eggs, bamboo worms and scorpions are also becoming a big part of the Thai kitchen.
Ants are said to give a sour taste, replacing lemon in salads. Locusts - and there are several varieties - are fried until they crackle. The chef then sprays them with soy sauce and hot pepper, occasionally adding monosodium glutamate. The female maengda, a type of water bug that looks disturbingly similar to a cockroach, is eaten plain but is also used in a variety of pastes, including shrimp paste.
Tourists in Bangkok are often surprised to see what they think is a fried cockroach - the maengda - being offered for sale. And then they watch with horror as an aficionado breaks off the legs and head of the bug before placing the abdomen between his teeth and squeezing the pasty soy-tasting interiors into his mouth with relish.
Urban legend has it that a plague of locusts nearly two decades ago had farmers madly spraying insecticide to protect their crops. One farmer wondered what he could do with all the dead locusts. He fried them, and his neighbors found the bugs, when cooked in soy sauce, to be tasty. The rest is history.
Awareness of the harmful effects of insecticides has traders insisting that the insects arrive at the market alive and flapping.
Chompoon Boontham, 25, who has been selling for more than five years to street vendors at Bangkok's Klong Toey market, says that a decade ago locusts fetched very low prices. These days, when there are shortages, the price jumps 25 percent. She buys the insects from middlemen who have purchased them from farmers or who have gone into the fields themselves to catch the assortment of bugs.
Chompoon freezes a portion of her purchases to ensure that she does not run out in the hot season from April to June. In those lean days, she imports locusts and maengda from Cambodia to make up the shortfall.
"The locusts and the large crickets are the most popular, as are the maengda," she says.
Any environmental impact created by the high demand for insects in the country is unclear. No real studies have been done. But a visit to Myanmar reveals much more bird life there than in Thailand. The Burmese are apparently leaving the bird food to the birds.
An entomologist at Thailand's Department of Agriculture says Thais should not feel too concerned about eating, as it were, from the same plate as their birds. Insects, the entomologist says, have an enormous capacity to reproduce, and only limited species of insects are being consumed or collected for fish farms.
Yet, according to Tassanee Cheamchanya of the University of Khon Kaen, the environmental impact was one of the reasons she and her colleagues pioneered techniques that have led to the successful commercial farming of crickets and locusts.
"While a farmer may only hunt certain species, he ends up catching numerous other insects that are simply killed. Commercial breeding may help to reduce damage to the environment," says Charnchai Tharvornukulkit, an assistant professor at the university.
And there is a living to be made from crickets and locusts. A survey of cricket farmers in the Khon Kaen area showed that the average monthly net profit of cricket farms between May 2000 and August 2001 had increased by 13 percent - far better than the Thai economy during the same period.
How much the insect industry contributes to Thailand's economy is unclear and how many people are employed in the industry is not known. But many people make a living exclusively from the trade.
Chompoon and her husband run their business 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
"On a bad day I will sell at least 40,000 baht [$924]," she says.
Assuming there are only 500 such wholesalers in the country selling half of what Chompoon sells, working 300 days a year, the industry could be worth as much as $70 million a year to the Thai economy.
"We don't keep figures of this," a spokeswoman for Thailand's Internal Trade Department says.
The Ministry of Commerce's Trade and Economic Index Division also has no figures. How much Thailand imports from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar is anybody's guess.
Nutritionally, the insects are surprisingly good.
"We have done research, and much more research is being done," says Sa-nga Damapong, a nutritionist at the Nutrition Division of Thailand's Public Health Ministry. "They are very good for humans as they are high in calcium, proteins and iron."
Recent research by the Thai Farmers Research Center shows that a large cricket delivers more protein (20.6 grams) per 100 grams than beef (18.8 grams), pork (14.1 grams), chicken (20.2 grams) or chicken eggs (12.7 grams). Only catfish delivers more protein per gram.
In Thailand's northern city of Pitsanaluk, Tongchart Nusa, who is said to be Thailand's largest insect wholesaler, has a factory that cans seven types of insects and produces 1,000 cans a day.
The canned insects are only for sale on the local market, but the ambitious Tongchart is planning to export the finished product.
Dollars, euros and other strong currencies would be most welcome, so canned crickets fried in soy sauce may one day be available at your local supermarket.