Cicadas Taste Great With Grits And Other Things You Probably Didn’t Know About PA's Perennial Pests

May 30, 2016

A cicada emerges in Central Pennsylvania in June 2004.
Credit Carolyn Kaster / AP

The cicadas are back after 17 years underground, and cicada mania is in full swing.

“They’re on a timer so they all come out at once,” said Robert Davidson, entomologist with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “It’s kind of like a great big orgy.”

Scientists aren’t quite sure why cicadas evolved to spend up to 17 years sucking on tree roots underground before emerging to mate and then die in a matter of weeks, but Davidson said it does make some sense from an evolutionary standpoint.

“The trick is to dodge the bullet by not being out all the time, which makes it a lot harder for parasites and predators to develop evolutionary ploys for getting act you and attacking you,” he said.

1) Pittsburgh’s cicadas won’t emerge until 2019.

The cicadas you’ve been hearing about are a part of Brood V, which skirts Pittsburgh proper. The brood is most active in Washington, Greene and Fayette counties, central and eastern Ohio, most of West Virginia and northwestern Virginia.

Credit magicada.org

Brood VIII is Pittsburgh’s brood, and is active pretty much across the entire Western third of Pennsylvania and bleeds into eastern Ohio just a bit. Those cicadas last emerged in 2002 and will be back in 2019.

“Bizarrely, there’s one little isolated spot out on the tip of Long Island that’s the same as Brood V," said Davidson.

  2) Most broods contain more than one species of cicada.

There are three different species of magicicada, the Latin name for the 13- and 17-year periodical cicadas of North America.

In case you want to identify the ones taking over your yard or favorite park, here’s the scoop from the foremost online cicada resource, run by University of Connecticut researcher turned marketing professional John Cooley.

Magicicada septendecim were classified in 1758 and have broad orange stripes on the underside of the abdomen as well as on the thorax behind each eye and in front of the forewings. They’re the largest of the periodical cicada species and some say their call sounds like the word “Pharoah.”

Magicicada cassini were classified in 1851 and are smaller than the septendecim. They’re pretty much all black, but might have some faint yellow-orange stripes on the abdomen. Their songs sound like a series of ticks followed by a shrill buzz.

Magicicada septendecula were classified in 1962 are similar to cassini in size and have well-defined orange stripes on the underside of the abdomen, but no orange markings elsewhere. Their courtship songs are more complicated and consist of a series of short phrases.

3) We already have cicadas every summer.

In fact, only the Eastern U.S. is home to 17- and 13-year periodical cicadas. Most of the cicadas in the world have a much shorter cycle.

“Well call them annual cicadas, but they aren’t actually quite annual,” said Davidson. “They may only have a two or at most a three year underground cycle.”

One species of the once-a-year cicadas are commonly referred to as dog-day cicadas, because they emerge in late summer and early fall, aka the “dog days of summer.” 

4) They’re loud enough to violate Pittsburgh’s noise ordinance.

For the most part, only male cicadas “sing,” because they’re calling out for a female mate. Cicada enthusiasts have documented individual insects calling at up to 109 decibels in close range. By comparison, Pittsburgh’s noise ordinance includes a cap of 75 decibels during the day and 65 decibels at night.

The incredible volume is created by organs called tymbals, located on the upper thorax.

“If you dissect it, it’s got a thing that looks like a bell clapper in there. It’s a thread with a ball on the end that wiggles back and forth,” said Davidson. “And then there’s a timpanic membrane over the chamber that’s just like the amplifier on a speaker. So they can make an incredibly loud noise for their little size.”

5) You can eat them.

Phil Enck, chef instructor and assistant professor at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, said he first tried cooking with cicadas back in the early 2000s when they emerged in his hometown, which is "literally inside Black Moshannon State Forest."

“Of course everyone thought that this is going to be the end of days and my grandfather was an outdoorsman and always talking about eating them,” he said. “So we did a little bit of research, and by God you sure can eat them.”

The first recipe Enck tried was inspired by one his favorite dishes, Charleston Shrimp and Grits. Except he swapped out the shrimp for cicadas.

“We ground some of them up and we served some of them whole and once you get past the aesthetic of it, it was quite good," he said. "The cicada itself kind of has the texture of a boiled peanut."

He said he’d like to try cicasadillas (a cicada-quesadilla) with his students this year.

Chef Phil Enck's go-to cicada recipe.
Credit 90.5 WESA