Watoga Trail Report

Pan-fried cicadas taste like popcorn shrimp.

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

MAGICICADA
The Conclusion

In last week’s edition of the Watoga Trail Report, we established that cicadas are not the insects called locusts. Locusts are capable of swarming and causing massive damage to crops, often resulting in starvation for humans and animals alike. It is a shame that many folks associate the harmless and fascinating cicadas with biblical plagues.

There are thousands of species of cicadas worldwide. The sudden appearance of cicadas we are now experiencing in Pocahontas County and surrounding areas are the Magicicada septendecim. This current event is referred to by scientists as Brood IX. The last time this brood appeared in our area was 2003, exactly 17 years ago.

With ruby eyes and iridescent wings, friendly and harmless – what’s not to love about the Magicicadas? Yet, for some people, it is the racket they make for weeks on end that grates on their nerves.

This year’s visitors will be here for about a month, and after mating, they will die. Being around so long may be bad news if their mating calls annoy you. However, the total life span of the periodical cicadas in the genus Magicicada is either 13 or 17 years. Most of this time is spent underground, silently feeding on tree sap.

Science is still not entirely sure how these periodical cicadas arrived at the 13- and 17-year life cycles. Interestingly, both are prime numbers, and there is some speculation that through natural selection these particular time spans provide the greatest protection from large-scale predation.

The life cycle of the cicada is relatively simple – the egg stage, nymph stage and adult. Here, around my house, the nymphs are now adults, and the males are calling for a mate each day. I am witnessing procreation daily, often on my back porch.
Soon the impregnated females will deposit their 400 to 600 eggs in slits that they have cut into twigs and branches in several locations on the tree. 

In another month or so, the eggs will hatch, and the newborn larvae will fall to the ground and immediately start digging. Once the newborns have reached a depth where they can feed on sap from tree roots, usually three to nine feet depending on locality, they will continue development. They will stay here until the time comes to dig their way to the surface and begin the age-old process anew.

The question that immediately comes to mind is how the immature cicadas know when to burrow their way to the surface? Entomologist Chris Simon at the University of Connecticut believes that an internal molecular clock prompts the nymphs to begin their ascent.

This molecular clock may obtain surface information about the passing of seasons from the sap ingested by the cicada nymphs. Exactly how this works is not entirely understood yet. It is better understood that the synchronized emergence of a single brood is based on a soil temperature of 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

I have been visiting a meadow near my home daily. Large oak trees shade the eastern margin of the field, so the ground underneath has little cover. The ground surface is perforated with holes the diameter of the nymphs, looking as though it was run over by a lawn aerator.

The holes are not uniformly spaced, but I have counted as many as 12 holes per square foot, indicating that 12 cicada nymphs emerged from the ground in just one square foot.

The portion of the meadow shaded by the oak trees is approximately 20 feet in diameter, and it is somewhere around 1,200 feet in length. So, just this one area would facilitate the emergence of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of cicadas.

Higher numbers of adult cicadas produce louder noise, and that leads us to how these creatures create such a racket.

Both the male and female have the anatomical apparatus to make noise, but the loud noise we are now hearing every day is the mating song of the male. Two drum-like membranes on the abdomen, called tymbals, create the sound.

Muscles in the abdomen cause the tymbals to vibrate, further amplified by a hollow abdomen (male only) and an anatomical feature in the cicada’s trachea. At an estimated billion cicadas per square mile, the noise level can reach 105 decibels, louder than a lawnmower.

The high volume and pitch of the male mating song allows the sound to be heard by females up to a mile away. An additional advantage provided to the cicadas by their song is that it repels birds that feed on them.

Some researchers speculate that the start of each day’s chorus is synchronized with birds’ activity. When the birds go to bed, the cicadas can close down their broadcast for the night, resuming the next morning.

I have been getting up before daylight to determine when my cicadas start their calls. I have found that it varies up to over an hour, so their resumption of singing is not consistent enough to set your clock by.

Magicicada has several different songs. It took a week or so, but I finally started to notice the variations in their song.

One morning a cicada landed on my shoulder, and when I gently removed it to put it on a tree branch, it issued a cry that I could verify online as the distress song.

Although it is not a widely held opinion, I am starting to enjoy their songs. Perhaps getting to know more about these fascinating creatures has that effect on people. 

Gwen Balogh, a local artist and naturalist, reports that she looks forward to the music of the cicadas and favors the “Pharaoh” in particular. The Pharaoh is another name for the Magicicada septendecim.

Cicadas do have some natural enemies other than birds. Fish will eat cicada in large numbers, and the cicada killer wasps will eat the adults. The eggs are also vulnerable to being eaten by certain mites, flies and wasps.

It should be clear that the only way for the cicada to survive as a species is to reproduce in large numbers. After all, so many creatures find them a delectable meal, including our species – homo sapiens.

Aristotle was said to be a fan of roasted cicadas, as were most of his fellow countrymen at the time. Greeks honor the cicada in myth and poetry. They are welcome fare in China and much of Southeast Asia and are considered a symbol of rebirth and immortality.

Cicada are regularly consumed in parts of Europe and North America. The Onondaga people, part of the Iroquois Nation, revere the cicada for saving their tribe from starvation during a famine many years ago.

One of the reasons that cicadas are a popular food source is that they are downright nutritious – no junk food here. An analysis of their nutritional value includes a protein content comparable to beef. They are low in fat, as well.

But, how do they taste?

Well, this dispatch would be remiss if its author did not cook up a batch of cicadas and see for himself.  Accordingly, I gathered up a dozen newly emerged cicadas in a paper bag early one morning last week.

I placed the bag in the freezer as I did not want to put them into boiling water while still alive. I thought that freezing the cicadas would slow their metabolism in a more humane manner – I hope that I was correct in that supposition.

From the freezer, the cicadas went into boiling water for about three minutes. After cooling, the wings and legs were easily removed. Then I simply dipped the insects into buttermilk and dusted them with a dry, lightly seasoned mixture of flour and cornmeal. Wanting to get an honest appraisal of the taste of the cicadas, I went light on the batter and spices.

I pan-fried the cicadas in peanut oil for a couple of minutes on each side. I then removed them from the skillet and placed them on a dish covered with paper towels. After sprinkling on a little sea salt, it was time to give the cicadas the taste test.

They were unexpectedly delicious, firm and crunchy. As well, the cicadas lived up to the claim that they taste like shrimp. If I did not know what I was eating, I would have guessed that they were popcorn shrimp. 
The insect dish was accompanied with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, but in retrospect, a Corona with a wedge of lime would have been a better choice.

Stay healthy – hike a trail.
Ken Springer
Ken49bon@gmail.com

Magicicada is the genus and septendecim is the species. There are a half-dozen or so species classified under this genus.
The many references used in this article are posted on the Facebook site Watoga State Park Hiking Trails.

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