How to celebrate 17-year cicadas – eat one!

The 17-year cicadas, Magicicada spp., are nearly here! They have risen to the surface of the soil and it is only a matter of days before they complete their final molt, expand their wings, and take to the sky. The tree canopies will fill with the other-worldly chorus of their mating calls, which sounds different from our annual cicadas. After mating, the females will lay eggs in the tree twigs, the eggs will hatch, and the tiny hatchlings will fall to the ground and burrow down to the depths where they will live across the next 17 years! It is an event that only happens here on this part of the planet – eastern North America.

Why 17 years? What an odd number… no, what a prime number! Is it randomly a prime number? Probably not. Other species of periodical cicadas also have life cycles that are the length of two other prime numbers: seven and 13. The idea behind these long intervals and prime numbers is that by emerging at odd, non-regular intervals, the cicadas avoid predation. In contrast, our green annual cicadas are a reliable summer food source for birds, mammals, and cicada killer wasps since they are present every summer. The prime number cycle helps periodical cicadas survive because it’s much harder for a predator to exist and specialize on a prey group when the prey group is available to eat only at infrequent and odd intervals. Imagine if your supermarket was open once every 17 years! You’d likely find another food source to rely on.

Mass emergence of periodical cicadas. Photo by SonnyCohen (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Mass Emergence as a Survival Strategy

In the special years when the periodical cicadas broods emerge, they emerge in wonderfully huge numbers! This is another part of their strategy for species survival. There is such a sudden boom in population numbers that there is no way all the predators will be able to eat enough to put a dent in the populations. This is called predator satiation. The bountiful meal may result in a spike in predator populations in the subsequent year or so, but predator populations won’t be sustained because the food source is not consistent. (Bamboo is another organism that is hypothesized to invoke this strategy for survival, with the species Phyllostachys bambusoides seeding every 120 years.)

Celebrate this momentous event by eating a periodical cicada!

Here is your chance to be a satiated cicada predator. If you are shrinking back at the thought, hold up! Do you enjoy eating shrimp or lobster? We regularly eat the arthropods of the sea, which include shrimp, lobster, and crab. Cicadas are arthropods just like them but cicadas live on the land. Consider cicadas as the “shrimp of the land.

Does it help to know that young cicadas tap into tree roots to suck fresh plant juice? Not to put down shrimp, but shrimp are scavengers and will eat any organic matter they encounter from decaying plant material to dead fish. Even knowing that about shrimp, I still find shrimp absolutely mouth watering.

How do cicadas taste? They taste rather nutty. I tasted Brood 2 back in 2013, and they tasted remarkably like pistachios. I knew going in that they might taste nutty and even with that expectation I was pleasantly surprised by the taste!

Periodical cicadas are black with bright red eyes and orange accented legs and wings. Photo by AmyLovesYah (CC BY 2.0)

It is important that I include a few safety notes about eating cicadas as we discuss eating cicadas. Be careful if you are allergic to shrimp or lobster since they are Arthropods like insects. Avoid eating cicadas in areas where there is high pesticide use or other chemical waste. Mercury buildup comparable to those found in herbivorous fish has been recorded in periodical cicadas. Since I am not allergic to shellfish or plan to have cicadas be a continuous part of my diet, the mercury concern does not alarm me.

I’ll admit, I did have a hard time eating cicadas for three main reasons:
1) I’m not used to eating insects/cicadas, so naturally trying new food made me a bit cautious. 
2) I love insects. I feel bad killing them to eat. I’d ideally like to keep them around me alive. 
3) I work in a museum collection, and I feel the responsibility to deposit the insects in the collection rather than eat them so they can be preserved and available for science for the ages. 

I have answers for myself that allows me to get past these holdups and take a bite.
#1 is inevitable. Eating insects is unfortunately not a part of our culture (yet!!) but it is for most of the rest of the world.
#2 is never going to go away but I know that insects are resilient and that if you eat some, the populations won’t be too affected. Typically, insects are easily able to repopulate their habitat because of their short life cycles and huge numbers of offspring. It is their habitat that is really crucial to protect and keep their species alive.
As for number #3, in the case of the periodical cicadas, since there will be hundreds of thousands of them in one small area, there ought to be plenty for me to both eat and deposit into the Academy’s entomology collection, and still leave the population sustainable.

Cicadas for sale for consumption alongside other meats at the Donghuamen market in China.
Photo by istolethetv (CC BY 2.0)

As mentioned earlier, cicadas are already eaten regularly in parts of the world outside of the U.S. such as in China. You can see in this picture how these cicada nymphs have been skewered and are ready to be purchased and roasted on the grill just like any other animal meat that is in the food display case.
If you live on the East Coast or in the Midwest, there is no better time to experience a bite of cicada than when Brood X emerges this spring. Bon appetit!

Have you eaten cicadas or do you plan to? Share your experience in the comments!

Without further ado, I present the recipe I plan to try this spring. My husband and I plan to collect and prepare some cicadas to make Cicadas and Grits. (Yes this is a spin off of Shrimp and Grits! Stay tuned for an update with how it went!)

Cicada and Grits

Grits Ingredients:
1.5 cups of grits
2 tablespoons of butter
2/3 cup of cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Grit Cooking Instructions:
1) Combine water, grits and a dash of salt in a pot and bring to a boil.
2) Cook for about 15 minutes.
3) Remove from heat.
4) Mix in cheese and butter.
5) Salt and pepper to taste.

Cicada Cooking Ingredients:
~ 30+ cicadas
4 teaspoons of lemon juice
1 tablespoon of oil (olive oil)
2 tablespoons of chopped garlic
2 tablespoons of chopped parsley
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
Green onion or chives for garnish

How to harvest and prepare the cicadas:
Collect nymphs or collect adults and store them in the freezer.
Note: If collecting the nymphs, remove the legs and head. If collecting adults, ideally use freshly emerged adults, when the exoskeleton is still soft. You might want to remove the head, wings and legs.

Cicada Cooking Instructions:
1) Boil cicadas to defrost and cook.
2) Put oil into a skillet. Turn up heat. Add prepared cicadas. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes.
3) Add in garlic, lemon juice and parsley and cook for 3 to 5 more minutes.
4) Remove from heat.

Combine Grits and Cicadas:
1) Overlay the grits with the cicadas.
2) Add chopped green onion or chives for a garnish.
3) Enjoy!

Isa Betancourt is a Curatorial Assistant of Entomology at the Academy of Natural Sciences who first tasted and called cicadas “Shrimp of the land” back in 2013 when Brood II emerged. She is author of the “Backyard Bugs of Philadelphia” book and hosts a weekly insect-themed livestream called the #BugScope to make entomology more accessible.

Read our other Academy posts on the periodical cicadas:

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  1. I have been collecting the nymphs, at the stage where they have just shed their exoskeletons. 40 in the freezer, starting to cook them tomorrow. I have challenged my friends to give me $1 for each one I eat, with the proceeds going to a new organization, Action for Racial Justice. Will report back on my experience.(Thanks for the recipe; love grits).

    1. They might be referring to when some cicadas are missing their abdomens due to a fungus that eats away at it. Other than that I have no idea

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