The Whitewater Valley may be in the midst of a winter storm, but soon enough, the warmth of spring will arrive and with it, millions of cicadas.
While cicadas are a normal summer occurrence in Indiana, and across much of the temperate and tropical zones of the world, 2021 will see the return of Brood X, one of the largest and most widespread groups of cicadas. There are more than 3,000 cicadas species and they can be found on every continent but Antarctica. Nearly all of these 3,000 species act like normal insects and can be found popping up and going about their business each year. However, in eastern North America, there are seven species that do things a little differently.

Members of the genus Magicicada, these seven species are known as periodical cicadas. They operate on a synchronized 13 or 17 year lifespan, emerging from the ground in hordes numbering as many as 1.5 million insects per acre. After spending the past 16 years as underground nymphs, Brood X will erupt again once the ground temperature reaches the mid-60s.

Entomologists believe the synchronous lifecycle of Magicicadas are a survival trait called predator satiation. Despite being slower and easier to catch than a typical annual cicada, periodical cicadas arrive in numbers great enough to fill the bellies of any potential predator and still have sufficient numbers to reproduce for the next swarm.

Despite the enormous numbers, the bugs themselves are on the smaller side, at least for cicadas. The average cicada measures between one and two inches, Magicicadas average between 0.9 and 1.3 inches in length. Meanwhile, empress cicada over in southeast Asia measures in at 2.8 inches in length.

Fortunately, cicadas are pretty harmless. They do not bite or sting defensively, they are not poisonous to people or animals and they are not known to transmit diseases. Cicadas feed on plant sap, both as nymphs and adults, but generally not enough to damage the plants. However, cicadas laying eggs in the bark of young trees and shrubs can cause damage. Vulnerable plants can be protected by covering with a screening material like cheesecloth, which should be put in place once cicadas begin to emerge from the ground and kept in place until after they have died off.
Perhaps the biggest threat posed by a cicada brood is a result of the intense noise they produce. Male cicadas have a hollow abdomen and a distinctive feature built into their exoskeleton known as a tymbal, these features are used to create a loud, far-reaching mating call. Males often form groups known as a chorus, call in unison for females of the species with a sound that can reach 100 decibels, similar in intensity to a circular saw, a gas lawn mower or an ambulance siren at 100 feet.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, expose to 100 dB noise should be limited to 15 minutes or less to avoid permanent hearing loss. Those spending extended periods of time outside during the brood’ adult phase may consider hearing protection to save their ears, and their sanity.

Due to their shear numbers, and non-poisonous status, cicadas are easy prey. A wide variety of critters feed on cicadas including birds, squirrels, bats, dogs, cats, reptiles and other insects. They can make a good meal for people too.

Cicadas are consumed in China, Malaysia, central Africa, Pakistan, Myanmar and North America. Professor Charles Riley researched Native American customs concerning cicadas in 1885 for the United States Department of Agriculture. He found indigenous tribes often roasted cicadas in ovens, but looked for other options as well and found battered and fried cicadas to be most palatable.

Experts suggest the best eating is found from young cicadas first emerging from the ground in the early morning hours. Called tenerals at this point, the exoskeleton is still soft and pale; soon, they will molt their skin and develop a hard, black shell. Once harvested they can be roasted, candied, baked, sauteed, or as Riley preferred, deep fried. Low carb, gluten free, locally sourced and highly sustainable, cicadas may be a once-in-17-year delicacy.