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Cicada: It's what's for dinner?


One of the longest living insects in the world, seen only once every 17   years.

Within six weeks, they will all be dead, hundreds of millions, if not billions, of them, and their progeny will not be seen until 2030.

Their buzzing can reach 90 decibels, equivalent to some power motorsCicada: It's what's for dinner?


But there is no reason to fear these insects, which grow to about 1.5 inches in length, with big red compound eyes. Cicadas don’t bite. And don’t worry about your plants. They’ll be fine. There’s no need to reach for the bug spray. 

See recipes below

Cicada: It's what's for dinner?

Sean Bush/AP

May 9, 2013

17 Years to Hatch an Invasion


From North Carolina to Connecticut, billions of creatures with eyes the color of blood and bodies the color of coal are crawling out of the earth. Periodical cicadas are emerging en masse, clambering into trees and singing a shivering chorus that can be heard for miles.

What makes this emergence truly remarkable, however, is how long it’s been in the making. This month’s army of periodical cicadas was born in 1996. Their mothers laid their eggs in the branches of trees, where they developed for a few weeks before hatching and heading for the ground. “They just jumped out and rained down out of the trees,” said Chris Simon, a cicada biologist at the University of Connecticut.

Those Clinton-era larvae then squirmed into the dirt and spent the next 17 years sucking fluid from tree roots. Now, at last, they are ready to produce the next generation. The adult males are snapping rigid plates on their abdomens to produce their courtship song. The females are clicking their wings to signal approval. They will mate and then die shortly afterward. Their time in the sun is short, but their 17-year life span makes them the longest-lived insects known.

After 17 years, we humans are just barely getting started in life. A mouse, by contrast, needs just seven weeks to become sexually mature, and it will live only a few years more. Yet mice are like Methuselah compared with the gastrotrich, a water-dwelling invertebrate the size of a poppy seed. Three days after it hatches, it’s laying eggs, and days later it’s dead.

In any given species, the pace of life evolves. Natural selection is constantly shaping its genes, adapting it to its environment. How long a species lives and how much of that life it takes to reach adulthood are evolving just like every other trait.

For periodical cicadas (usually pronounced sih-KAY-duhz), evolution favors growing up in sync. They can find protection from ravenous birds in huge numbers. There simply aren’t enough birds at any moment to eat a few billion cicadas at once.

This strategy has worked so well, in fact, that cicadas have lost their other defenses. They even fly sluggishly. When errant cicadas emerge in the wrong year, they are quickly eradicated by birds — along with their errant genes.

For a fast-growing cicada, Dr. Simon suspects, natural selection favors patience. “It’s better to wait till everyone catches up,” said Dr. Simon. As a result, evolution favors a long life in cicadas.

Only some of the periodical cicadas in the eastern United States are emerging at the moment. They’re known collectively as Brood II. In other regions, other broods emerge in different years. Last year, for example, Brood I emerged in Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee. All told, there are 15 broods lurking in the ground around the United States. Twelve have a 17-year cycle, and three have a 13-year cycle.

You knew this one was coming.

Earlier this month, we told you about a U.N. report that makes the case for insects to improve global food security: They're cheap, plentiful and environmentally sustainable. Now, the coming of the 17-year cicadas provides East Coast Americans, for whom bug eating is considered novel at best, with an opportunity to try local insect cuisine.

If you're willing to try cicada cookery, there's a book to guide your way, as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports Wednesday on All Things Considered. Cicada-licious, published in 2004 and available for free online, features recipes for cicada dumplings, tacos and chocolate-covered cicadas.

Author Jenna Jadin tells Yuki that, before cooking, you should break off the legs and wings — "they kind of tear off pretty easily."

"Then rinse them off," Jadin says, to "make sure all the soil bacteria is off of them."

Back when cicadas infested Chicago in 2007, freelance food writer David Hammond also gave the critters a culinary go. "My goal was to get them right as they were coming out of the ground," he tells NPR. "Young. Veal, if you will. Ha ha."

He realizes Western diners might be put off or grossed out by the idea of eating bugs — but weird is all relative, he notes. (After all, 2 billion people already eat bugs, mostly in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Australia.)

"Cheese is the grossest thing in the world," Hammond says. "You know, it's rotten milk. You eat rotten milk? That's disgusting! Yeah, well, we love it."

Then there's the fact that — hate to break it to you — you've probably already eaten bugs without realizing it.

"Insects are a part of all processed foods," Jadin writes in her cookbook, "from bread to tomato ketchup — it's impossible to keep mass-produced food 100% insect-free. There are regulations stating the maximum amount of bug bits that food can contain and still be fit for human consumption."

Sit back and digest that for a second.

But of course, the big question is: How do they taste? Word on the street is that cicadas are kind of nutty or kind of like asparagus.

Jadin cooked up a batch of the noisy, red-eyed bugs for our intrepid reporter to sample: candied with brown sugar and seasoned with Sriracha, then baked in the oven at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. The verdict?

"It's kind of like caramel popcorn," Yuki tells us.

You can hear Yuki's story on All Things Considered.


Gerry Broome/Associated Press

Serves 2 amply

1 cup freshly emerged cicadas 2 quarts clean boiling water salt to taste

1. Gather cicadas from tree trunks and shrubbery, just after they have come out of their nymphal shells; they should still be soft and whitish, like soft-shelled crabs.

2. Drop the cicadas into water after it has come to a full boil; water may be salted.

3. After 12 minutes, drain and season to taste.

4. As a variation, try older cicadas, 30 to 60 minutes after they emerge; they are still tasty, but have hardened and darkened. They should have their wings and legs snipped off after boiling.

5. For still another variation, gather nymphs while they are still living underground or just after they emerge.

6. Boil as above.

7. Use boiled nymphs in much the same way you would use cooked shrimp. For example, stir-fry in a wok, combining with favorite spices, vegetables and sauces.

Nutritional analysis: High in protein, fat and glycogen, the form in which sugar is stored to provide energy.

 Bon Appetite!!!