When Yuki Uzuhashi was 12 years old, he accompanied his grandfather from Osaka to Nagano Prefecture for a summer holiday. While exploring the mountainous countryside together, his grandfather shared a curious detail from his youth: He had grown up eating hachinoko, or bee larvae. And, his grandfather added, not only was it nutritious, it was also very tasty. More intrigued than repulsed, the young Uzuhashi decided he had to try hachinoko for himself. The duo inquired among their Nagano relatives and eagerly combed local grocery shops for a taste of grandfather’s past, but their search proved futile. Then, as the two sat dejected and empty handed at the terminal waiting for their return bus to Osaka, an aunt strode in with a can of preserved bee larvae. As soon as he got home, Uzuhashi rushed to open the tin. Inside was larvae cooked in a traditional sauce of shoyu, sake, and sugar. It was savory sweet, Uzuhashi recalls. More than the taste, it was the entire hachinoko experience that left an indelible impression on the young Uzuhashi. “Searching for it, getting it, and biting on something unusual—I still remember it all,” he says.
Today Uzuhashi is the owner of Mānoa Honey Company on O‘ahu with nearly 400 hives under his care. Though first a beekeeper, he is foremost an artist. During college, he pursued sculpture, but the heavy mediums of stone and wood felt more onerous than uplifting. He later experimented with performance art, but was wary of works that leaned toward musicals or interpretive dance. Instead, Uzuhashi desired a long-term art form, an ethos that didn’t end in a white-cube gallery exhibit or a one-off performance. Inspiration came on the wings of bees.
During his final year in college, Uzuhashi learned of a small tribe of people who traveled each spring from the southern islands of Japan to northern Hokkaido, following the blooming path of flowers, and in turn, bees. They were honey harvesters. “I liked the idea of a bohemian, gypsy lifestyle,” Uzuhashi says. He saw the migratory movement of the blossoms, bees, and beekeepers as organic poetry, a wonderful integrated performance set in nature. “I wanted to be like that,” Uzuhashi says. “Beekeeping would be my life’s expression of art.”
At age 23, he embarked on a beekeeping apprenticeship in Hyogo Prefecture on Japan’s main island, Honshu. Soon, his childhood memory of hachinoko, long dormant, resurfaced. As a burgeoning beekeeper, he was also the quintessential starving artist. “I was very poor,” Uzuhashi says, “so, I started to cook larvae.”
As in many Asian countries, the practice of eating bugs—namely bees, wasps, crickets, and grasshoppers—is not strange in Japan. Records of entomophagy, the formal term for insect consumption, stretch as far back as the Edo period. Though insects are more commonly consumed in rural areas or during times of food scarcity (World War II witnessed Japan’s population resorting to eating bugs out of necessity), there has been a rise of interest in them as a viable alternate protein source across a wide swath of proponents that include environmentalists, sustainability advocates, nutritionists, and, of course, adventurous foodies. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, bugs offer the same amount of protein as conventional meats like pork and poultry yet require much less feed, space, and time for growth. Their high content of nutritious fats, vitamins, fiber, and minerals has even led NASA to research insects as a possible food source for future colonies on Mars. Back on Earth, they might also help people to live longer: Nagano Prefecture, where Uzuhashi’s grandfather grew up, has the highest life expectancy in Japan, a country with a population that already averages 83.4 years as of 2015. In Nagano, insect consumption is commonplace, and men and women lead surprisingly active lives well into their 80s and 90s.
“I came into beekeeping from the point of view of contemporary art,” Uzuhashi says. Harvesting bee larvae is an edible extension of his craft. In 2007, Uzuhashi hosted what he called a “Panic Picnic,” as part of an art exhibit featuring elements of his life’s work as a beekeeper. Small teams of volunteers were given live hive trays and tweezers, and taught how to peel off the waxy brood nest cappings and extract the larvae, a laborious and meticulous process. Then, a culinary challenge was issued: Each group was tasked with creating a dish utilizing bee larvae. The result? An impressive tasting menu ranging from bee larvae pasta to bee larvae pudding. Sitting together at a long table to eat, “We cheered and gave thanks to a life given from bees,” Uzuhashi says. With each new Panic Picnic came a new set of bug-as-food believers.
Uzuhashi believes that the success of his Panic Picnics stem from the experiential excitement surrounding the discovery of something new. “Art is one of the greatest ways to change people’s perceptions or to expose them to something different,” Uzuhashi says. “Rather than going too straight or too direct into bugs as a protein food, it’s really more about experience.” Naturally, bee larvae rookies are curious, if not concerned, about the taste. Depending on the stage of development—pupa, larva, or adult—each has its own flavor profile and texture, Uzuhashi explains. When deep-fried and salted, bee larvae tastes like crumbled potato chips. When eaten raw, they pop like ikura, or salmon roe, their flexible, firm exoskeletons giving way to a gush of creamy liquid. “It tastes like milky chestnut,” Uzuhashi says. “We also only eat the drones,” he adds, cognizant of the concern surrounding dwindling bee populations. Drones are different from the larger population of female worker bees. In their lifespans, drones perform one-time roles of inseminating the queen bee, who, once fertilized, lays nearly 2,000 eggs a day. Says Uzuhashi, “Drones play a much less important role than the workers do.”
Uzuhashi is quick to note that he doesn’t consider himself an ardent bug protein activist or even ambassador. To him, beekeeping, whether extracting honey or eating bees, is an iteration of his organic, poetic art form. He’s also diplomatic about the varied reactions—from the bewildered and curious to the bewildered and grossed-out—he receives when he tells people that there’s more to bees than just honey, and that bee larvae is, in fact, a delicacy. “Some nod hard,” Uzuhashi says with a chuckle. “And some scream.”