The Phoenix Worm

Phoenix Worms, despite their name, are not worms – rather, they are the larvae of the black soldier fly – and as far as we know they have no special connection to the city of Phoenix (other than that they thrive in compost bins even in extremely hot whether, something that can’t be said of another prolific creature of composting – the red worm). The name “Phoenix Worms” was given to the larvae by Dr. Craig Sheppard, who started selling BSFL (as black soldier fly larvae are frequently called) as feeder insects – for certain types of reptiles, for example. We recently received a question about Phoenix Worms, and it is one of the stranger ones we’ve been sent in awhile. (To be sure, it is a downright normal question compared to the one we received about selling worms in a milk jug that had been buried for six months.)

This is the reader’s situation and question: for the last several months, he has been composting his vegetative leftovers. Over time, he noticed that thousands of Phoenix Worms were breeding in his compost area. (Technically, the reader said “what seems” like thousands of Phoenix Worms, implying that he wasn’t sure exactly what he found, but given the circumstances, we are very confident that he is in fact dealing with BSFL.) The reader thinks the larvae are neat, and that they are a “hot topic” among reptile owners. Indeed they are, and so far the reader’s email is well within the bounds of a standard query sent to us. But then this came: “are phoenix worms fit for human consumption?” He seems partial to cooking them, saying that he is curious if he could “fry up a batch.”

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If you’ve ever seen swarms of Phoenix Worms attacking a compost pile, this will probably strike you as an unexpected question – it certainly struck us this way. On the other hand, eating insects is actually a widespread phenomenon that is popular in many parts of the world. The practice, which even has its own Greek-derived name, entomophagy, has largely fallen out of favor in developed nations, but it remains extremely popular in the developing world. Moreover, insects are often fried, so our reader is on the right track in terms of cooking techniques.

But is it safe to eat these larvae? This is the question we are not sure of, so we can’t say with certainty whether it is okay to eat Phoenix Worms. All we can do is offer a few observations. First, in the bug-eating world, there is nothing unusual about eating larvae, so the fact that Phoenix Worms are in the larval stage of their life cycle doesn’t disqualify them from being eaten. Second, frying the larvae up will very likely kill any harmful pathogens (much like cooking chicken to a certain temperature kills bacteria like salmonella). Because of this, we suspect that it is probably safe to eat fried Phoenix Worms, but we are definitely not certain, so our reader should get conclusive advice before whipping up any larvae-centered cuisine. There are simply too many unknown factors that might make consuming them dangerous. To cite one unknown factor, the leachate (a liquid residue of sorts) produced by Phoenix Worms contains enzymes that are too acidic for other worms, which can lead to problems when red worms and Phoenix Worms occupy the same compost bin. We have no idea whether these enzymes would give humans any trouble, and perhaps frying the larvae would eliminate any potential problem, but we simply don’t know. Moreover, humans can have any number of food allergies, and this must give anyone pause when they are trying an entirely new food.

We wish we could give the reader the go-ahead to eat his vast supply of Phoenix Worms if he so chooses, but in this case, caution wins the day.

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