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Will Black Soldier Fly Maggots Save Humanity?

Black soldier fly
A female black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) laying eggs. Wikimedia Commons (CC By-SA 3.0)

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Admit it: you've spent the better part of your sentient life assuming maggots are gross. And a lot of them are, due to their intolerable habit of eating rotting flesh and feces. But have you considered that maggots might be what saves you — all of us — in the end?

Wouldn't that be something?

Not all maggots are created equal, of course. The one that's going to save you is not the flesh-eating screwworm maggot of the Florida Keys, or the larvae infesting Sardinia's infamous, illegal delicacy, casu marzu, or maggot cheese. There's only one maggot currently known to science that could possibly save humanity, and that's the larvae of the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens), which is still kind of gross (thousands of them will feast on a single food source at once, creating a writhing living fountain of beneficent, Earth-saving maggots), but sometimes you just have to set aside disgust in the interest of survival.

Common in much of the Western hemisphere and Australia, you may not have remembered noticing a black soldier fly before. The adults are about 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) long, and can be mistaken for wasps, only they're extremely slow and lack a stinger — they often eschew flight and spend their 14 or so days of adulthood moseying around on the ground. But what black soldier flies look like as adults hardly matters, as they spend very little time in their grownup bodies — in fact, the adults have no mouthparts or digestive organs because once they become flies, it's sort of a hit-it-and-quit-it situation: They can mate within a couple days of hatching and they don't live more than a week or two after that.

The Larvae Are Edible

So, it's the larvae that have sustainability researchers salivating — literally. If their plans come to fruition, we will all be eating black soldier fly larvae (which are referred to as BSFL in the biz) — they taste like peanuts or Fritos, depending on who you ask. This is because BSFL contain about 43 percent protein (in addition to some calcium and amino acids), which is astronomical compared to every other plant- and animal-based food on the planet.

According to a 2013 United Nations report, insects already make up part of the diets of around 2 billion people worldwide, and as Earth's human population grows, meat like beef and chicken will be a protein option for fewer and fewer people. It takes only one acre of BSFL to grow the same amount of protein as 3,000 acres (1,214 hectares) of cattle and 130 acres (53 hectares) of soybeans. The larvae themselves can be dried and turned into flour, pressed for their oils or roasted and sprinkled over a salad for a little extra crunch. The sky's the limit with these maggots!

Black Soldier Flies Eat Trash

Not only that, BSFL make great trash processors. They are capable of eating a wide variety organic waste — nearly anything you can throw at them, from food scraps and rotting carcasses to poop and toxic algae (although they reportedly have a difficult time managing hair, bones and pineapple rinds) — leaving us with a smaller carbon footprint and a whole lot of compost. A group of researchers at Texas A&M has even figured out how to put BSFL to sleep for long periods of time and "wake them up" when it's time to put them to work eating waste.

A few different companies (like Symton BSF and Evo Conversion Systems) are currently trying to make this BSFL thing happen. But can we get over our revulsion in interest of survival?

Keep your ear to the ground over the next decades. We're about to find out.

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