Cicada Central: Why These Noisy Insects Are Important

A Brood X cicada sits on a green leaf.
Photo courtesy Katja Schulz/Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Ah, cicadas. By now you have heard the buzz about the insects that will soon be taking over the tri-state area. The ground isn’t quite 64 degrees, but it is getting close, and there have already been a small number of emergences spotted in the west side of Cincinnati. Soon the trees will be singing with billions of male cicadas, all looking for that special mate they have waited their whole 17-year lives for.

Cicada Facts

Once the soil temperature is 64 degrees, the wingless cicada nymphs will start to emerge. They will climb to a higher point where they will shed their exoskeleton and then hang on to a vertical surface to let their wings expand and have their skin harden. During this state, they are particularly vulnerable. The first cicadas to emerge will be the most likely to be eaten by everything from birds to fish to raccoons, but this is beneficial for the species as a whole. Have you ever had too much of a good thing? That’s what hundreds of species of wildlife will experience. The remaining cicadas will fly around in the tree canopy, looking for a mate. Only the males sing to attract the females, while the females snap their wings in response. Once mated, the female will use her serrated ovipositor (think of it like a mini saw), to cut into a tree branch and lay her eggs. When the eggs hatch, the small nymphs will fall to the ground, burrow into the soil and find roots to latch onto to drink the sap, which is their only food their entire lives. We won’t see them again till 2038.

A Brood X cicada nymph clings to a tree while shedding its exoskeleton.
You may spot cicada nymphs on trees, shedding their exoskeletons like this one. Photo courtesy corporationtshirt/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0).

The most common questions I receive are “Will they attack me?” and “What are they good for?” The answer to the first is no, they are a bit clumsy as fliers and might get in your way – but their proboscis (sucking mouth part that is used like a straw) was only used when they were nymphs; they do not feed as adults. The answer to the second question is lots of things!

  • When they emerge, cicadas aerate the soil – they loosen it up so the ground is less compact.
  • Cicadas are full of protein for all the animals that eat them
  • Your trees will get a free, natural pruning that could result in a bigger flower and fruit yield for next year!
  • When cicadas die, they release nitrogen back into the soil.
Two Brood X cicadas sit on a large leaf. They are facing each other.
Photo courtesy Tracy Lee/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Edible Insects

If this will be your first time witnessing the Brood X (pronounced Brood Ten) cicada emergence, you are in for a real treat! Especially if you are up for trying these delicious insects as a meal! Back in 2004, I was in seventh grade and I distinctly remember my science teacher joking that we could eat cicadas. I of course took this very seriously and recruited two of my friends to do the ultimate end-of-summer project and made a cicada rhubarb pie! We spent days peeling cicadas off the trees, freezing them and tearing off their wings and legs (those get stuck in your teeth, according to the recipe). Then we mixed them with our other pie fillings, which included rhubarb, sugar, flour and lemon juice, stuffed it into our crust and baked it. I think we both horrified and mystified our other classmates, but it started my journey of trying and eating different insects (entomophagy). With cicada week coming up after emergence starts, Great Parks will be trying out different ways to cook them, but you could also prepare something new and delicious! Be sure to check our calendar of events for all of our cicada week offerings, including different ways to dine on them.

Cicada Citizen Science

If you would like to get more involved in the scientific community, downloading the Cicada Safari app is a good place to start. This is a citizen science project that will help track cicada emergences across the country. All you need to do is take a clear picture and turn in the location, and BAM! your picture will be used for research. This is important so scientists can track the populations of the three species emerging in Brood X, and see what environmental factors affect their populations.

This once-in-a-generation event should not be taken for granted. I hope you are able to enjoy what cicadas bring to the table (in some cases literally). The largest insect emergence in the world is about to happen in your community – so go out and enjoy!

Sarah Kent
Outreach Manager, Great Parks Nature Center at The Summit