Cicadas: Nasty beast or tasty feast?

Jason Menken

As the sun rises on a beautiful summer morning, so do the periodical cicadas. They make their presence known as they appear by the thousands.

Parts of eastern Iowa, Illinois and Indiana are experiencing the emergence this summer. Residents of central Iowa will not see the cicada emergence until 2014.

The soft white wrinkled bodies and red beady eyes are the first sight as the cicadas emerge from the ground.

Once the cicadas have matured, they begin to sing.

The singing can reach an intensity of 90 decibels – about as loud as a kitchen blender – said Allison Lehnen, environmental educator with the Lake County Forest Preserves.

“In the areas where cicadas are abundant there can be 20,000 to 40,000 per tree in areas where the trees are old and undisturbed,” said Donald Lewis, professor of entomology.

The life cycle of the cicada

Cicadas begin life as nymphs, insect larvae that has not completed metamorphosis.

“They will burrow into the ground and feed off tree sap for 17 years,” Lewis said.

When the cicadas emerge from the ground they climb up the nearest vertical structure.

Upon finding a vertical object, they attach themselves to begin the molting their exoskeleton.

“A predetermined weak spot along the back breaks, and when that cracks open, the insect pulls itself out of its own shell,” Lewis said.

Lewis described it as a “miracle of metamorphosis,” because, while all insects shed their shells, with cicadas the whole process can be observed.

“Following the extraction from the shell, out comes a white, soft wrinkled adult, and over the course of about two to four hours that soft white insect will swell up, the wings will expand and the exoskeleton will turn dark and hard,” Lewis said.

At this stage they are now ready to fly, sing, mate and lay eggs.

Once mating starts and the female is mature, she will put slits into the tree to lay her eggs.

Later in August – once the adults die – the eggs will hatch and fall to the ground where they will burrow, living off of the sap in the roots for the next 17 years.

A delicacy 17 years in the making

With the emergence of the cicadas, many animals – including humans – partake in the eating of them. A suburban schoolteacher is making cicada treats for her students to try, from cicada chocolate chip cookies to chocolate-covered cicadas.

“They are a great food source for all animals – even animals that don’t typically eat insects will eat cicadas,” Lehnen said.

According to “Cicada-licious,” a cookbook published by the University of Maryland, the ancient Greeks and Romans considered cicadas a delicacy.

Cicadas are high in protein and are said to be tasty, having a delicate nutty flavor.

David Hammond, of Chicago, has eaten cicadas and has a few recommendations.

“I would go with the smallest possible cicadas,” Hammond said. “If possible, grab the little buggers when they are first coming out of the ground – that is when they will be the most fresh.”

Hammond also had advice how to prepare the cicadas.

“The first step in preparation of cicadas is to quickly boil them – it cleanses the cicada of any contaminants like dirt,” Hammond said. “It also kills the cicadas and firms up the inside, making it more pleasant to eat.”

Marlin Rice, professor of entomology, talked about his experience in southeastern Zimbabwe, where he saw children eating cicadas.

One of the African boys skewered 16 cicadas on a reed, according to an article by Rice in American Entomologist.

“In our culture it’s mostly a psychological issue – we just don’t collectively eat insects,” Rice said.

Rice described the experience of actually eating the cicadas.

“They were crispy, as I had expected a large fried exoskeleton would be, and had the flavor of popcorn. I ate another.”

Cicada stir-fry

Try this recipe put together by Stein Carter from Clermont College in Cincinnati, Ohio. He posts a host of interesting cicada recipes along with information about cicada myths and ancient uses. This recipe is one he suggests can be tailored to your specific wishes, vegetables available and culinary tastes. Of course, the cicadas are a must.

  • 2-4 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 1/2 cup onion, minced
  • 1/2 cup cilantro, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh ginger root, finely chopped
  • 1 cup sliced carrots
  • 1 cup chopped cauliflower or broccoli
  • 1/4 cup water chestnuts, sliced
  • 1/2 cup bean sprouts
  • 1/2 cup snow peas
  • 1 cup blanched cicadas
  • naturally fermented soy sauce
  • Heat oil (or lard) in a wok or deep-sided frying pan. Start with the onion, and then add each ingredient in order when the previous one is partially cooked. Add soy sauce to taste. Serve over the rice of your choice.

    Visit for more recipes.