Deep-fried insects are popular snacks among Cambodians.
Spiders, silkworms, bee larvae and crickets cooked with salt, garlic and chilli are sold on the street or in bus stations and restaurants.
But the crunchy treats are so popular that some species have been eaten almost to extinction.
That’s what inspired Kampong Cham native Cheng Sothea to begin breeding critters on his farm.
“I noticed that people eat crickets every day, and most of them are caught in the fields,” Cheng Sothea, 43, says.
“As the number of crickets became less and less, the price of these bugs went up, so I decided to raise crickets to sell at the market.”
Last year, Cheng Sothea travelled to Thailand to buy cricket eggs for breeding.
But he was disappointed by the small size of Thai crickets, so he began breeding a local species three times the size of the ones he got in Thailand.
“The smaller crickets sell for 15,000 to 20,000 riel (US$3.72 to $5) for one kilogram, but the larger crickets sell for 80,000 to 100,000 riel ($20 to $25) per kilogram. So who wants to raise the smaller crickets?” Cheng Sothea says.
To simulate the environment of the crickets, which live naturally in the fields or bushland, Cheng Sothea puts cardboard eggs in the concrete basins he built for the purpose of breeding crickets.
For the larger species, which live in holes under the ground, he piles soft soil in the basins for them to settle.
“My first try at breeding failed. The crickets didn’t lay eggs,” Cheng Sothea says.
“But on the second try, I found some eggs in their underground holes. After 13 or 15 days, those eggs hatched. Now I know how to breed this larger cricket.”
Each cricket produces between 200 and 300 eggs, but only 200 crickets are expected to grow through the harvest.
Cheng Sothea harvests his crickets a few times each month. In each basin, there are about 50 kilograms of crickets, and one kilogram of the larger crickets costs $2, so in the future he expects to earn about $1000 per harvest.
The crickets’ survival is a delicate balance of environment and care.
Cheng Sothea keeps them in an isolated area away from human contact, where the temperature is always kept under 25 degrees Celsius. He feeds them a diet of rice, grasses and leaves, cabbage and other greens.
Special precautions need to be taken to make sure the crickets are safe.
“Besides being aware of pesticides that may exist on vegetables, I have to be careful with their enemies too. Ants, lizards, rats, frogs or snakes are crickets’ enemies. I use water and mosquito nets to separate my crickets from them,” Cheng Sothea says.
His cricket-breeding operation has thus far proved a success, and he already has plans to expand the business.
In May, he plans to sell some of his larger crickets to other farmers so they can also raise them, and he hopes to publish a book about how to successfully breed these larger local crickets.
“Farmers around the country, except Preah Vihear and Mondulkiri, already buy cricket eggs from me. But those eggs are just the smaller cricket species. Now that I have the larger species, I hope those farmers will shift to raising the larger crickets also,” Cheng Sothea says.
The entrepreneurial cricket farmer also aspires to go beyond cricket-breeding.
“Actually, my purpose is not just to raise crickets but also other species, especially spiders,” he says.