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 Mr. 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.
Mr. 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,” Mr. Li said.
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,” Mr. 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, Mr. Li’s facility is a single-storey former farmhouse. The breeding area is roughly the size of a badminton court, with windows sealed off with netting to prevent any great escapes.
Mr. 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 a frenzy — as Mr. 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.
Every three months, Li harvests the cockroaches to keep the population under control by dropping some into a vat of boiling water before dehydrating the carcasses. Last year, he sold one tonne of dried cockroaches to a pharmaceutical factory for nearly 90,000 yuan (₹9.32 lakh).
In neighbouring Xichang, the Gooddoctor Pharmaceutical Group runs the world’s largest cockroach farm where a whopping six billion insects held in a facility that employs artificial intelligence in monitoring movement and environmental conditions.
The bugs have detoxifying properties and can act as a diuretic, said Liu Daoyuan, chief specialist at the Yinchuan City Yongshou Medical Centre.
“It is also effective for relieving sore throat, tonsillitis, (liver) cirrhosis and fluid build-up,” he added.