Only in America

Only in America – both 13- and 17-year periodical cicadas are found mostly in the northeastern portion of the United States, with a few broods extending as far West as Kansas and as far South as Louisiana.

Only in America – both 13- and 17-year periodical cicadas are found mostly in the northeastern portion of the United States, with a few broods extending as far West as Kansas and as far South as Louisiana.

I first learned about the existence of periodical cicadas when I was a young boy, still living in z Old Country. The idea that an insect could develop underground for 17 years was crazy enough, but the fact that after all that time every individual within the population emerges at once in a synchronized, massive wave was almost too much to believe. Naturally, I became obsessed with this incredible phenomenon, which takes place only in the eastern half of the United States, and nowhere else in the world. To make it even more interesting, in addition to their unusual biology, these insects were reputedly quite tasty, thus combining my two greatest passions – entomology and exotic dining – into one, handy package. I very badly wanted to see them.

A nymph and an adult of a 17-year periodical cicada (Magicicada septemdecim) from Meriden, CT.

A nymph and an adult of a 17-year periodical cicada (Magicicada septendecim) from Meriden, CT.

My first opportunity came in 2004, when Brood X of the 17-year cicadas emerged in Washington DC and the surrounding states. Like the birds and dogs, which go crazy at the sight of such an unexpected bounty and stuff themselves with cicadas until they are ready to burst, I also went a little nuts. My friend Leeanne and I organized a cookout, daring others to try our fried, chocolate-covered, and roasted cicadas and, in the final stage of the entogastronomical orgy, live ones. Surprisingly, live, freshly molted (teneral) cicadas turned out to be absolutely delicious, combining a firm but yielding texture, with a creamy, delightfully nutty flavor. Now that I think about it, they might be considered a terrestrial equivalent of raw oysters. I wonder how they would taste with a drop of champagne mignonette and a touch of horseradish?

Nymphs of periodical cicadas spend 13 or 17 years underground, feeding on roots of trees. Their front legs are enlarged and perfectly adapted for digging.

Nymphs of periodical cicadas spend 13 or 17 years underground, feeding on roots of trees. Their front legs are enlarged and perfectly adapted for digging.

The opportunity to find out may be at hand. This June, for the first time since 1996, 17-year cicadas (Brood II) are emerging in central Connecticut, and thus not too far from my home in Massachusetts. Yesterday I took a drive to Connecticut to see if I can score some of the beautiful and delicious insects. With friends Derek and Melissa we arrived at a particular street corner in Meriden, CT, which we had carefully selected based on the latest reports of cicada sightings. The first thing I noticed after stepping out of the car was the persistent hum of cicadas calling from high in the trees. There were clearly thousands of them in this neighborhood, and soon we started seeing small clusters of cicadas sitting on trees and bushes. Alas, they were all mature adults.

When finally ready to molt, cicada nymphs climb trees and other tall objects, and transform into beautiful adults.

When finally ready to molt, cicada nymphs climb trees and other tall objects, and transform into beautiful adults. This individual is a member of the Brood X, which emerged in 2004.

To eat cicadas, one must collect them while they are still soft and lightly colored, before the chitin of their exoskeleton hardens and the wings fully expand. Still, it was great to be able to see these amazing insects again. Derek and I spent some time photographing the cicadas, although strong and gusty wind made it quite difficult. After my friends had left I stayed a bit longer, determined to find some teneral individuals. I did not find any, but after some digging in the soil I located cicada nymphs. I brought a few of them home, and now all I need to do is wait, and make some mignonette sauce.

Newly emerged (eclosed) periodical cicadas are almost snow white, but within a couple of hours their body darkens and their exoskeleton becomes hard.

Newly emerged (eclosed) periodical cicadas are almost snow white, but within a couple of hours their body darkens and their exoskeleton becomes hard.

An empty exuvia of a periodical cicada.

An empty exuvia of a periodical cicada.

Adult periodical cicadas live for only a couple of weeks, and during this time they feed on juices of plants.

Adult periodical cicadas live for only a couple of weeks, and during this time they feed on juices of plants.

2 thoughts on “Only in America

  1. dear mr naskrecki

    your posts are usually fascinating but your horseshoe crab and the cicada are a joy. the incredible complexities of both are mind boggling and they are right here on the east coast. i have always considered the annual mating a must see , even if it meant dragging the children out of bed at 4am to go down to the beach (right down the street), they grumbled but only until they caught sight of the first horseshoe crab , then the delight, we could not leave until most all the crabs caught on their backs in the rocks and too high up the beach were righted and sent on their way. that was 15 years ago, i still get up and go down to watch and still right and free the stuck crabs, the children are grown but remember the excursions fondly, for the most part (at least my excursions had them moving , their fathers’ had them standing and looking through a telescope for hours, hot chocolate was a must) . as for the cicadas, i was disappointed not to get any of the brood ll , i think they are absolutely wonderful.

    thank you for sharing your knowledge and adventures.

    kind regards,

    candice bigelow

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