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inna bug conference: Bad Shaman Interview

Spiros Antonopoulos

Insectoidal Nourishment and the Bad Shaman

The Bad Shaman, while barely known, needs nor wants little introduction. He's a hard-working American ayahuascero. A successful entrepreneur. Conscientious psychonaut. Researcher of arcane plants, animals and insects. He remains perfectly comfortable surfing the edge of obscurity. Like the shaman in many of history's archaic societies, he lives and works on the outskirts. We visit the shaman as a last resort. His ways elude sense and nonsense. His mojo works, but never as we expect and always at a price. He would be the first to push you down the stairs, if it might cure what ailed you. He may even ask to eat your brains, but that's another story.

humans eating bugs

Trip: What's the history of bug eating?

Bad Shaman: Primates and humans have consumed insects since Neolithic and Prehistoric times. Only recently, within the last 100 years, has insect eating gone out of fashion, except in small rural areas of Mexico, China and a handful of other remote areas. Throughout history, insect eating has been a main source of food for most mammals and birds.

How do bugs taste?

Of the 70 species of insects that I've sampled, the only ones that weren't very appetizing were ladybugs. And I've eaten grubs, larvae, beetles, wasps, sow bugs (roly-poly bugs), mealworms, pine grubs, post beetles, earwigs... Insects are surprisingly tasty and comprise the spectrum of flavors, from nuts to vegetables.

Earwigs couldn't be too tasty.

They are surprisingly tasty. Stir fried with rice and snow peas. Very yummy. I'd like to order some take-out right now.

Which bugs are the yummiest?

The roly-poly bugs. They can taste like anything from spinach to oysters depending upon habitat. And if you cook them, they can be made to taste like just about anything.

If folks could get over the base level aversion, it sounds like roly-poly bugs could usurp tofu.

Yep, and that leads me to my basic assertion: If you eat shrimp and you can't eat grasshoppers, you better re-examine your taxonomy and zoology.

ant eating

Tell us about psychoactive insects.

Psychoactivity in insects is esoteric at best. Certainly there have been reports of psychoactive honeys from bees in the new world and the old world. Rumors and stories abound. There is a tradition in southern California and the Southwest of eating red harvester ants for their hallucinogenic psychoactivity in the acquisition of spirit helpers.

How did you come upon such esoteric knowledge?

I have been interested in ant consumption by humans in different cultures around the world for over 25 years, and I read scientific papers. For example, ants are no longer an imaginary food source. There are serious papers being presented by entomologists suggesting that eating more insects may solve some world hunger problems and be an excellent source of nutrients for humans.

Traditionally, insect information and lore have been considered a female knowledge since the hunter-gatherer societies didn't share equally in the vertebrate proteins. That is, men would kill the animals and thus procure most of the vertebrate proteins, leaving women to gathering plants. In doing so the women would also learn about what bugs you could eat. They knew that since insects and plants co-evolved in such a similar environment and parallel evolutionary scheme, their ability to transform plant products into insect poisons is an evolutionary strategy that nature has tried again and again successfully. Insect and arachnid poisons are currently being researched in venom therapies, much like the bee venom therapies used by the Greeks and Romans for thousands of years.

Where do the ants come in?

Primarily in central and southern California. Several tribes used the Pogo for their spirit helper acquisition powers. A person ate a prescribed number of ants and went into a dream state for a couple of hours in which (God willing) a spirit helper would appear in the form of an animal.

So this isn't recreational bug use.

No, their use was mostly therapeutic. Ants have had therapeutic values with the tribes in southern California and other native peoples throughout the Americas. I met a Dr. Rodriguez from the University of California at Irvine who told me, 25 years ago, that there are 20,000 species of ants in Columbia. And Columbia is already the mother source of many of the poisons that the world is aware of today: tobacco, coca, those sorts of things...

How have you used the red harvester ants?

Over the years I have eaten ants both therapeutically and for the psychoactive effects. I had heard tales of ants being used for arthritis and rheumatism for years. And I have found sources indicating that indigenous cultures from South, Central, and North America have used ants in that way. So I would capture and eat a small quantity of ants for their beneficial effects with rheumatism. The ant that we have in New Mexico is a particular harvester ant in the species Pogonomyrmex californicus, which is specifically known for its venom. There are so many types of ants and each ant has a different ability to produce different types of chemicals and venoms.

Ants have the oldest history of farming. They invented agriculture over 60,000 years ago. They are able to grow funguses on harvested plant materials and control the growth of unwanted fungi and microorganisms with antiseptic sprays that they produce with their bodies.

The particular ant of which I currently speak has a historical tradition, and people at the turn of the last century knew about it. J.P. Harrington, a researcher who worked and lived at that time in the Santa Barbara area, documented two matching ceremonial accounts of ant consumption.

Have the venoms been analyzed for their active constituents?

To a small degree. But since there are so many compounds in ant venoms, it's a process that's ongoing. I suspect that even in the back annals of scientific literature, this is probably not a popular subject. But it is becoming more popular (see references).

vision questions

Please explain the traditional ceremonial techniques.

In the recorded anecdotes of native peoples giving ants in a prescribed way, that is, ceremonially, eagle down or cotton is used. The ants would be collected from the ant hive, four or five per cotton ball or feather. The cotton ball was then bitten and swallowed. The person would then wait a period of time, and then with the help of an administrator, would go into a sleep state for a couple of hours, after which they would be administered warm water which would help them regurgitate whatever ants might be left in their stomach. It was important that they consume ants while they were still alive.

I've eaten a couple of hundred ants and I find that there certainly is a neurotoxic or psychoactive effect. But as far as going into a dream state, passing out, and acquiring spirit helpers, I have yet to reach that level of saturation.

Can one obtain the same prescribed effect from dead ants or the extract? What has been your most successful experimental technique to date?

Ants are plentiful and easy to collect. I've found that using a glass pie pan with beer, water, juice or mescal, one can collect a rather large amount of ants in a short amount of time. The LD50, i.e., the lethal dose of ants, is about 1000, swallowing live ants, so a participant would want to consume about a third to half that amount. Be aware that there is a lethal toxicity to the harvester ants which have been traditionally used, and which I have been consuming.

It's a bit like walking towards death...

People who are interested should research the literature before attempting to consume any ants. Again, it can be fatal and I don't recommend it. The bite from this ant is extremely painful and will linger for hours, sometimes days.

Why are you using these particular liquids as the base for your extractions?

This is how we find out what solution is more likely to extract the ant's psychoactive properties. The beer may extract qualities with alcohols that mescal doesn't have. It may turn out that eating live ants is ultimately what has to be done to get them to exude their compounds in the time that you want and the quantity that you need.

Are the compounds oil-based?

There are high molecular weight compounds and low molecular weight ones. So I would think that they would have an affinity to many things because it is such a complex mix of proteins and histamines and seratonin-like compounds.

About an hour after I sampled the mescal extract, I was overcome with a severe heaviness. It was rather dark, but not particularly scary. Definitely a meet-your-maker heaviness. Is this typical?

I'm sure there's a dose-response curve where at lower doses one could have physical benefits while at higher doses you could have psychoactivity, and at even higher doses one could have hallucinogenic activity. But this is an area of avant-garde research. Very basic work still needs to be done, but certainly here is an open field of potential for beginning to understand psychoactive insects as we have with psychoactive plants.

In Mexico, centipedes and wasps were commonly revered for their poisonous qualities and there were often beverages made from them.

How would you compare the ant buzz to a more commonly known psychoactive plant-based poison like datura?

Oh, it's nothing like datura. And actually that's not a fair comparison at all. It's much more like the poison of the tarantella, the wolf spider of Europe.

Would you like to see some ants that I've collected?

juicing antcastles

<The Bad Shaman displays his dead ant collection and the extracts. He takes a sip from one beaker, and offers it to me.>

This one has a very peculiar taste...

<Spiros gulps some ant beer.>

Very ant-y...

How would you describe the taste of ants?

Different ants have different tastes. These particular ants have a lemon-lime, Sprite-like taste. Not the formaldehyde and formic acid tastes of other types of ants. Nor the sweet buttery taste of black ants. Or the honey taste of honey pod ants.

While this is unexplored territory, it's not for the faint or foolhardy.

No. It's literally like playing in a wasp's or hornet's nest. Ants pack as powerful a venom and sting as those insects.

You've been bitten a few times playing in the nest.

When the ants bit my tongue it took about four or five hours for the burning sting to dissipate.

What about other psychoactive bugs?

<The Bad Shaman opens another neatly packaged box containing dried iridescent beetles.>

These were gathered in the Mexican province of Chululah near Puebla. Terence McKenna speculated that the iridescent green was a signature of psychoactivity in bugs. These guys lived in an acacia tree at night and were attracted to the local poppies during the daytime. So I thought that may be a good indication that they were sequestering some psychoactive properties from the trees and flowers.

Have you tried them?

Well, we've smoked them and eaten them and there's mild psychoactivity. But we really haven't jumped into these bugs with both feet yet. We're still trying to collect more background information before I start consuming something that could always be potentially lethal in its poison.

How does it compare to the ants?

That's comparing apples and oranges. Beetles and wasp-like ants. I was reading, however, that there's a beetle in Brazil that is raised in peanuts and eaten for rheumatism and arthritis. So I suppose there are a few parallels. Insects are often medicine in traditional cultures; the problem is the scarcity of professionally trained ethno-entomologists that can ask the question, "What insects were/are you using for medicines?" Interestingly, Merck currently has an agreement with Costa Rica to categorize not only all their plants but all of their insects, aware that insects are a possible source for chemicals and medicine. And why wouldn't they be? Plants are certainly a source of medicine. Perhaps this is just the tip of an iceberg that we've yet to explore scientifically. It could hold a cure... perhaps even the cockroach holds the cure for cancer or some other unimaginable terminal disease.

Even so, do you have any moral issues with ant eating?

I do. I am concerned with the taking of life for certain solely psychoactive purposes, but for therapeutic purposes I find that it's a medicine that's worthwhile.

There's a theory that the ant colony is a collective consciousness and that the living anima rests not within the individual ant, but with large groups of them...

Within their collective brain the ability to learn advances with each generation. The ants on this mound probably exist over a quarter acre or so. They know this environment so intimately because they are constantly searching to see what's out there and what's available. And the sheer quantity of them. We have no idea what it's like. They've dug underneath all of this area. There are literally tens of thousands of them.

Hell, it's more crowded in New York City, so humans do actually have an idea of what it's like. What do you think about the ol' role reversal, HG Wells' Empire of the Ants and perhaps ants eating humans?

How do we know they don't? Fuck this article, we should do a movie.

Spiros Antonopoulos was a contributing editor for the dearly departed Fringeware Review.

The Bad Shaman's insect-eating reading list:

Related Links:
Tags : shaman bug insect psychoactive ant
Posted on: 2006-02-09 23:03:40