Beijing: As farmer Li Bingcai opened the door to his cockroach farm in southwest China, an insect the size of a dart flew into his face. Picking the critter off his forehead, he tossed it back into the dark room where some 10 million more of its kind scurried around, housed in wooden frames perched on shelves.
The six-legged creatures may be a bugbear for most, but Li and other breeders in China are turning them into a niche business. Some sell cockroaches for medicinal purposes, as animal feed or to get rid of food waste.
Li breeds them for something else: food for human consumption. A restaurant down the road from his small facility fries them up in famously spicy Sichuan sauce for the gutsier eaters.
"People don't believe how good it is until they try some," Li told AFP, putting a live one into his mouth as others crawled all over the place and people visiting.
Known colloquially as American cockroaches, the Periplaneta americana is one of the largest species and are consumed for a variety of ailments: stomach ulcers, respiratory tract problems, and even simply as a tonic.
"The greatest effect of cockroaches are that they have great immunity, which is why humans will absorb its benefits after eating them," Li said, noting that in China cockroaches are dubbed "Little Strong" because they can live for days even after being cut in half.
Tucked at the edge of bamboo-covered mountains in Yibin, Li's facility is a nondescript single-storey former farmhouse surrounded by crop fields and livestock farms. The breeding area is roughly the size of a badminton court, with windows sealed off with netting to prevent any great escapes.
Security is paramount: In 2013, some one million cockroaches escaped a farm in eastern Jiangsu province roamed free after their greenhouse was destroyed. Li's cockroaches live between the spaces of square wooden frames that are held together by pipes and stored in racks lining two rooms. The place is kept warm and humid, leaving a smell reminiscent of damp clothes.
Feeding time causes frenzy as Li heaps a mix of ground corn, fruit and vegetable peelings on small trays, the insects suddenly swarm the platforms, crawling over each other. "We breed them in a hygienic environment. They eat proper food nothing synthetic," he said....