Beeswax was used in traditional medicine as early as the Han Dynasty (200
BC), and used for candles, wax pills and sculptures in the Tang Dynasty
(1200 years ago). Beeswax was and is still used in the traditional dying of
cloth -- batik. A pattern is first drawn and covered with wax, then dyed,
and when wax is removed by boiling in hot water, the wax-covered area
will appear to be the original color (usually white), and the dyed area
usually blue to green. Beeswax is also used to make a sculpture, covered
with clay, the wax is then melted away and replaced with melted metal.
This process is called the lost wax process.
The earliest record of rearing insect for wax (Coccos pella, named by Frenchman Chavannes as a new species in 1848) was found in the Song Dynasty (11th century). The species name pella is the transliteration of Chinese beila, meaning white wax. N. Trigault, a Christian missionary was the first European to know about wax insect in China (1651). In 1853, W. Lockhat brought wax and insects from Shanghai to England for study.
Shellac is the secretion of the lac insect (Tachardia lacca). The earliest record of lac is found in Wu Lu (268-289 AD). Shellac is used as medicine for curing various blood diseases. It is also used for dying silk objects, leather or ornaments and used rouge, lipstick, lacquer and glue.
Chinese galls (Wubeizi) are perhaps the most common insect-related medicine, used for many sores (Tinea, etc). They are produced by gall- making aphid (Pemphigidae) on Chinese sumac (Anacradiaceae: Rhus). Although some people nowadays do not realize the insect component because it has a name emphasizing the plant part, people long time ago knew the insect-plant connection. In Tai Ping Guang Ji (Copious Record in Taiping Region Period, 980 AD), Li Fang observed that "in the Xia Mountains and the region of Sichuan there is a species of insects... they dwell upon the leaves of Chinese sumac, in spring they oviposit and roll the leaves around to form their nests which are as big as peaches or plums. The nests are called Chinese gallnuts and can be used as a good cure for all serious sores. Collectors usually dry and kill them to keep within the leaves, otherwise, they will slip away through the chinks". (Chou Io, 1990).
The most expensive one is probably Dong Chong Tsia Tsiao (winter caterpillar summer grass). The caterpillar fungus consists of larvae of Hepialus armoricanus (Lepidoptera: Hepialidae) infected with an obligate entomopathogenic fungus Cordyceps sinensis (Clavicipitales, Ascomycotina). The wholesale price is about $700/kilo in China (Steinkraus and Whitefield, 1994). I believe that there are now artificially cultured caterpillar fungus whereby caterpillars are reared and then inoculated with the fungus spores. The pharmacological properties of the caterpillar fungus are similar to these of gingseng. A Chinese medicine book says they are mainly used for weak lungs, coughing and shortness of breath, weak kidney, back pain, impotence etc.
Other common insect-related medicines are egg cases of praying mantis and blister beetles. When I was young, I used to collect cicada exuvia from trees, and sell them for about 2 cents (Chinese, exchange ratio unknown at that time, but probably like 3:1 to US currency) to the local pharmacy (where one could both buy Chinese herbs and also sell them). The cicada molts are supposedly good for scrofula and ulcer. Silkworm frass is also used as a medicine for diarrhea, when I was rearing silkworm as a hobby (when I was about 5-6), I used to collect the frass and trade for a few cents at the local pharmacy. Another time I took in a centipede, which was alive for quite a few days while being dried on the wall with a bamboo stick forming a bow like structure (one side inserted into the head, the other side into the last segment, therefore the centipede was stretched due to the tension and cannot escape). I remember it was worth 10 cents, but I got quite a few sleepless nights when another boy kept reminding me that the centipede was capable of revenge when the time became right (after reincarnation into another life ? I did not know). This last time I was in China (September 1993), I got a kidney stone and had great pain. The doctor told me I had a weak kidney and prescribed 10 (!) centipedes ground with some other herbs. Perhaps due to my childhood experience I still viewed them with awe and did not take that particular prescription.
A cockroach (Eupolyphaga sinesis) is also used as a medicine. It is supposed to help stop bleeding and heal bone fractures, swelling etc. I remember one time my maternal uncle came to our house looking for a roach (must be an emergency: otherwise he could have got one from the local pharmacy -- or he believed a fresh one was better than a cured one -- I could no longer remember). He tore the whole mud-made stove down, making the kitchen a huge mess. The roaches apparently liked to dwell in cracks in the stove.
Apitherapy is now very popular in China, there are now at least three institutes or hospitals famous for apitherapies (Xi'an of Shanxi, Lianyungang of Zhenjiang and Nanjing of Jiangsu). Arthritis is the most popular disease to be treated by bee stings. Recently, apitherapy is also used for both arthritis and for muscular dystrophy in US. Other bee products used for medicine include honey, propolis (used in an alcoholic tonic). Royal jelly is very popular as a health-strengthening food, especially among the "intellectualls" (professors, researchers, etc). Use of pollen as health food is rather recent, perhaps after the Europeans. Queen larvae, mostly by-products of royal jelly production, are also used for making alcoholic tonic.
Ants are used as health food and a medicine, though as usual it is not known what are the active ingredients. There had been an anecdotal report that a village of long-living people (average ~90) attributed their longevity to the habit of frying up ants and eating them. Ant is a major component of a herbal medicine for hepatitis B (Mayi Yigan Ning). This medicine is reported to give a 60% efficiency to convert hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) to serum negative. This compares favorably with the ~30% conversion efficiency using interferon, as reported by medical journals in US. There are also wines and tonic made with ants.
When I was young, I used to rear silkworm sort of as pets. It is also common to see scarab beetles or dragon flies tied to a string, and used as toys for kids 4-5 years old.
Cricket fighting, which was very popular in ancient China, is slowly being revived. The earliest publication for how to use cricket for fighting is in Song Dynasty (1213-1275). The practice became rare after revolution in 1949, and was banned during the cultural revolution, due to its "bourgeois nature". Now it is making a coming back. There are even Association for Cricket Fighting in Beijing. The association sponsors national tournaments whereby modern equipment such as video cameras are used to zoom in and project the fighting onto many television sets, which enable many viewers to see the fighting simultaneously.
According to Dr. Robert Pemberton, Asians seem to have less phobia for insects compared to North Americans, and enjoy insects more.