The Cicadas Are Coming! They're Cool Science; You Can Eat Them, Too.

If you haven’t heard, you’re about to: Billions, and perhaps trillions, of periodical cicadas will come out of the ground in a few weeks, setting up a cacophony of insect booty calls.

Yes, the emergence of these approximately inch-long, red-eyed insects is loud, obnoxiously so to some. But it’s also kind of beautiful. Even people who don’t live in cicada country can’t help but delight in this choreographed copulation in the treetops with full sound effects that goes on for a few weeks. (Spoiler, though: They all die.)

California may have eternal sunshine and great surfs, but one thing Golden Staters will never experience on their home turf is a periodical cicada emergence, nor will anyone outside the eastern half of the country.

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More’s the pity. Periodical cicadas are cool science. Here’s what you need to know:

Where Are Cicadas In 2024?

These insects spend most of their lives underground as nymphs feeding off the sap of tree roots. They transform into adults when they emerge and live only a few weeks above ground.

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There are three broods of 13-year cicadas and 12 broods of 17-year cicadas. This year, two broods will emerge, likely starting in late April and through June: Brood XIII, known as the Northern Illinois Brood, which has a 17-year-life cycle, and Brood XIX, the Great Southern Brood of 13-year cicadas.

These two broods haven’t emerged at the same time since 1803, and the dual emergence could produce more than 1 trillion cicadas, according to Smithsonian Institute entomologist Floyd Shockley.

Between the two broods, periodical cicadas will emerge in 16 states this year: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Virginia.

Cicadas Are Insect Sexy

Cicadas aren’t sleeping hibernators, a common misconception about the insects, according to the National Wildlife Federation. They are busy underground tunneling, but especially sucking the juice from tree roots as if they’re in training for their important job — their only one, really — during brief three or four weeks above ground.

The whole setup is insect sexy. The males come out of the ground in full voice, vibrating their tymbals — drum-like membranes on their abdomens, an anatomical structure that conveys a certain intimacy — in concerto of cicada romance.

They all — well most of them; nature is brutal — eventually make it the treetops in this choreographed cicada copulation. The females switch partners, hooking up with as many of the fellas as they can because that’s how the species continues.

Once the deed is done, females make slits in tree branches to lay their eggs. All the adults die off, and their decaying bodies add nutrients to the soil.
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Meanwhile, life goes on. The eggs hatch in about six or seven weeks. Nymphs fall to the ground and burrow into the soil, where the cycle begins anew. And just as their parents did in 2024, they will emerge en masse in another 13 or 17 years.

Cicadas Are Evolutionary Superheroes

Even if you don’t live in cicada country you can’t help but delight in their evolutionary superstardom.

Scientists can’t fully explain periodic cicadas’ evolutionary strategy. One theory is their periodic emergence is timed to avoid certain predators. Tulane University biologist Keith Clay calls the emergence of periodical cicadas “one of the most unusual biological phenomena on Earth.”

One theory is that cicadas, which are lousy flyers and a veritable fast-food buffet for predators like copperheads, have adapted to ensure they don’t all get eaten up. Even if predators have a feast, there are so many of them that enough survive to mate and lay eggs.

If they came out every 16 years, for example, predators with two-, four- and eight-year cycles would be around at the same time of year to eat them.

“The main hypothesis is that it’s very difficult for predators to have a similar life cycle, where they could actually specialize on these cicadas ’cause they also would have to have a 17-year life cycle,” Clay said in an interview with the American Association for the Advancement of Science three years ago when another brood of 17-year cicadas emerged.

Another hypothesis about the synchronized emergence of periodical cicadas is that the forced developmental delay was an adaptation to climate cooling during the ice ages.

Because their brief time above ground is so fraught with danger, periodical cicadas time their synchronized emergence at night when many of their predators are sleeping. The strategy isn’t perfect. Male cicadas make so much noise with their vibrating tymbals that every predator around knows they’ve popped out of the ground.

They are very, very loud.

Their chirping — incessant chirping, many say — can reach 100 decibels, as loud as a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with straight pipes or a jackhammer running full bore into concrete or a lawn mower cutting through tall grass.

Trigger Warning: You Can Eat ’Em

Did you know you can eat nutrient-dense cicadas? They’re high in protein and low in fat, and people who eat them call them the “shrimp of the land” and a rare delicacy.

Some common ways of cooking cicadas include deep-frying and serving the with a hot mustard dipping sauce, marinating then in teriyaki sauce, or baking them into a cake or pie. Many people consider cicadas a rare delicacy.

“We regularly eat the arthropods of the sea, and those are the shrimp, lobster and crabs,” Isa Betancourt, an entomologist from Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, told Lancaster Online in 2019, noting that “cicadas are arthropods, too.”

Cicada aficionados recommend looking for freshly hatched cicada first thing in the morning. It’s a good idea to boil them for a few minutes to make them more tender and also to kill any fungus or bacteria cicadas may have contracted during their years underground. You probably also want to remove their legs and arms.

Mike Raupp, an entomology professor at the University of Maryland, just loves them. His former students even created “Cicada-Licious: Cooking and Enjoying Periodical Cicada,” a cookbook filled with cicada recipes.

“I’ve had them several different ways and, frankly, I’ve enjoyed them every way I’ve eaten them,” Raupp told Lancaster Online.

Gaye Williams, an entomologist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, called cicadas “the truffles of the insect world” in a 2004 interview with The Baltimore Sun.

Many cultures around the world regularly eat insects, Williams said.

“Americans are the only ones around who are grossed out by eating insects,” Williams told The Sun. “For most people around the world, insects are a major food source or delicacy.”

Raupp doesn’t understand why so many people automatically turn up their noses at the idea of eating cicadas.

“Have you ever eaten an oyster or a clam out of the bay?” he told the publication. “It lives on the bottom of the bay and filters you know what (feces). You’d eat this thing, but would not eat this delectable insect that’s been sucking on plant fat for 17 years? I think it’s weird.”

A Long, Strange Trip

Speaking of weird, researchers say cicadas answering nature’s call to perpetuate their species face a rather ghastly peril: certain types of the fungus Massospora that contain the same psychoactive chemicals found in hallucinogenic mushrooms and street amphetamines.

Cicadas that get into the fungus go on the equivalent of long, strange trip. In so many words, and more scientific ones, researchers said cicadas copulated so furiously that their genitals fall off.

And not only that, the cicadas were so inspired they continued doing it after their genitals fell off and without regard to the gender of the other bug, according to study co-author Matthew Kasson, a plant pathologist at the University of West Virginia.

He said in a news release announcing the 2019 study that cicadas infected by the fungus “engage in hypersexual behaviors.”

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