Updated: Jan 8
Discounting their irritating noise and their mind-boggling swarming habits, cicadas are pretty darn cute (if you can think of bugs as being such a thing). With their oversized, toddler-esque heads; prominent, wide-set, often colorful eyes; and a pair of huge wings draping their backs like royal capes, broods of these insects emerge every 17 years, some every 13 years, and still some annual varieties are seen every year. But, whether seen or not, you’ll definitely hear them: Cicadas are the loudest insects in the world, with some species even capable of overpowering the noise of a wailing fire engine at over 120 decibels.
Luckily, the only type of cicada to live in the Minnesota’s local wild are of the annual variety and these are much milder in presence then some of their North American cousins. Typically goldish-brown with dark green wing veins, these cicadas are referred to as dog-day cicadas because they pop up and make noise during the hottest “dog days” of summer.
That was certainly true for the little cicada I spotted resting on a length of cucumber vine a couple weeks ago on one of the warmest afternoons yet this summer. It was a pretty little specimen and, even though it could see me with its two big compound eyes (and maybe even its three simple, jewel-like ocelli in front of its head, used primarily to discern light from dark), it stayed still enough for me to get a close-up shot with my phone’s camera before scooting around the vine and hiding beneath the cover of a cucumber leaf.
Active July through September, these big bugs max out at just over 1¼ inches in length. That’s pretty big, but not bigger than Minnesota’s largest insect (to be discussed next column!). The dog-day cicada’s call—said to sound like the high-pitched whine of a power saw cutting wood—is on the quieter end of the cicada noise span, hitting just over 80 decibels and lasting around 15 seconds per song. Only males make the robust, irritating sound in order to attract females.
Other than their impressive noise, certain cicadas show up in impressive numbers. Dog-day cicadas are of the annual variety, meaning some show up every year, so we in Minnesota don’t experience the massive swarming that other cicada broods are so infamous for imposing upon their resident human populations. This year, a 17-year brood of cicadas known as Brood VIII (8) is expected to show up in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Oklahoma.*
In other cultures, cicadas’ sound is less an irritation and more of the ringing of Mother Nature’s dinner bell. Many cultures globally (and some in the US) regularly enjoy cicadas as food, and the songs of the swarms signal an opportunity to go out and gather a free meal (or more) from the local wild. In an article for Lancaster Online, Isa Betancourt, an entomologist from Drexel University, argues that since “[people] regularly eat the arthropods of the sea and those are the shrimp, lobsters and crabs” why not eat cicadas, because they’re arthropods, too?[i] Indeed, nobody complains about gathering up swarms of crawfish—another arthropod—and putting on a festival in their delicious honor! (The 7th Annual Minnesota Crayfest was held just a couple weekends ago, on August 3, at the Smack Shack in Minneapolis.[ii])
From the same article, University of Maryland entomology professor Mike Raupp suggests cicadas “taste a lot like shrimp” and if you’d eat “an oyster or a clam out of the bay [which] lives on the bottom of the bay and filters [feces], but would not eat this delectable insect that’s been sucking on plant fat for 17 years (a cicada)”, that’s just plain weird.
Even if it does sound off-putting, eating cicadas does make sense nutritionally as well as in the concept of food maximization. Though being an entomophage (a person who eats insects) is taboo in America and other Westernized countries, for many cultures around the world insects are a part of a regular meal and can make up as much as 20% of their diet. Even the United Nations in 2013 put out a report titled “Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security” in an effort to encourage entomophagy, the consumption of insects as food.[iii] Are you convinced? Not me, but if I’m ever hungry and in the woods and I hear a cicada calling, you’d better believe I’m hunting him down (and his friends) for a meal!
Aside from cicadas, other regularly eaten arthropods of the insect world include grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, termites, as well as next edition’s “largest insect in Minnesota”, the giant water beetle. Until then, I hope you get a chance to enjoy listening to the cicadas singing, as their song indicates the peak of summer and the oncoming cooler months just ahead for our local wild.
*An interactive chart of cicada broods can be viewed by visiting www.cicadamania.com/where.html.
[i] Lattanzio, Vince. “17-year cicadas are edible, taste a lot like shrimp”, Lancaster Online. URL: https://lancasteronline.com/news/year-cicadas-are-edible-taste-a-lot-like-shrimp/article_fc7849ba-7950-5759-92ce-ad744f852799.html. Accessed: 09Aug2019.
[ii] 7th Annual Minnesota Crayfest by Smack Shack. Event URL: www.eventbrite.com/e/crayfest-2019-tickets-57550002607#.
[iii] “Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security”, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome, 2013. URL: http://www.fao.org/3/i3253e/i3253e.pdf. Accessed: 09Aug2019.