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Health, Science, Environment

13-year cicadas swarm to their own special love song

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 6, 2011 - For better or for worse, the St. Louis area is witnessing one of nature's most bizarre phenomena, one that only comes around every decade or so. That's right, it's time to put in the earplugs and turn down the hearing aids. The cicadas are back.

"Being afraid of bugs, it's really bothering me," Trish Moore of Fenton said. "There are tons of them. It's like an alien invasion."

Moore, who said it seemed like there were "billions of them" in her yard, has been keeping indoors as much as possible these days. Normally, she'd be out barbequing, gardening, sunbathing and taking part in what were her annual summer activities, but the insects have driven her indoors.

"I don't want them to touch me," she said.

The Great Southern Brood

The cicadas heard now are 13-year periodical cicadas, says Ed Spevak, entomologist and curator of invertebrates at the St. Louis Zoo. Periodical cicadas emerge every 13 or 17 years, depending on the brood.

A brood is a population of cicadas that emerge at the same time. Right now we're hearing Brood 19, commonly called the Great Southern Brood. This year, Brood 19 extends from Missouri all the way to North Carolina and Maryland and reaches down to southern states as well, says Spevak.

Thirteen-year broods tend to concentrate in southern states, while 17-year broods tend to stay up north. A true border state, Missouri can get both. Many probably remember that in 1998, during Brood 19's last St. Louis visit, a 17-year brood emerged as well. The two broods hadn't emerged at the same time since 1777 and won't again until 2232.

The United States has 22 known broods of periodical cicadas. St. Louis sees a few of them every couple of years. Brood 3 will reemerge in 2014 and Brood 23 in 2015.

"They turn out in mass numbers: hundreds of thousands, millions," Spevak says. "The sound we hear is the throbbing chorus of males trying to attract females, like if you went to a bar with a bunch of guys, hoping that more of you would attract more females."

Cicadas are commonly mistaken as locusts, but locusts are migratory grasshoppers and cicadas are "true insects," says Spevak.

Brood 19 has inundated parts of St. Louis County, especially western and southern areas, while places in north County and parts of the city have yet to hear a thing from Brood 19. Spevak says that this is because cicadas depend on a forest habitat to survive and reproduce.

In the past, parts of the city or county were exclusively pasture, prairie or without trees. Cicadas don't go far from where they emerge since their lifetimes are so short. The result is a slow re-colonization process, but Brood 19's range in St. Louis will eventually expand.

For St. Louisans who haven't seen Brood 19 and still want a cicada fix, do not fear.

"We also have to remember, too, this is just one species of cicada," Spevak adds. Spevak is referring to the annual species of cicada, or the "dog day" cicada, which have yet to emerge in St. Louis.

"The periodical cicadas will disappear, and we'll hear them," Spevak said. "They're actually louder individuals, but they don't have the sheer numbers" as periodical cicadas.

Cicadas do not bite and do not sting and cannot harm people, Spevak says. In fact, they are more beneficial then they are harmful. As nymphs (their larval stage), they aerate the soil, allowing water and nutrient flow and are a high-protein food source for native fauna when they emerge as adults.

Once the females lay their eggs in young stems of trees and some bushes, the adults will die. Once the eggs hatch, the nymphs fall to the ground and burrow into the soil, where they feed off roots until their emergence 13 or 17 years later. Since the emergence is staggered, Brood 19 is expected to be around for another four to six weeks.

Who Needs Groceries?

While some, like Moore, hunker down during the Great Southern Brood's takeover, others find creative ways to enjoy the emergence. For example, staff at the St. Louis Regional office of the Missouri Department of Conservation in St. Charles got up early on May 24 to go out and collect newly hatched cicadas for their cicada feast.

Dan Zarlenda, media specialist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, while absent for the feast, has cooked up some cicadas on his own.

"The best time [to gather them] is early in the morning after they emerged," Zarlenda recommended. "Their bodies are softer, and they tend to get harder as the develop during the day."

Zarlenda described several recipes he and his colleagues at the office have tried, including stir-fry, rotini pasta and mushroom pizza -- all with cicadas, of course. For dessert, the group prepared chocolate-covered cicadas. (See one at the end of the article.)

"I don't have a very sensitive palate so they were kind of neutral, but I do hear they have a nutty taste," Zarlenda said. He also mentioned a friend of his, who said the first time he tasted the nutty flavor was when he deep-fried them like popcorn shrimp.

However, there is a word of caution: Like any food, clean them. Zarlenda recommended boiling the cicadas for four to five minutes before consumption because they can pick up bacteria during their development. It is likely since the insects heard now have spent the past 13 years living in the ground.

While most turn up their noses at the idea of eating cicadas, the insects are high in protein and, if anything, have more nutritional benefits than one would expect. However, as Zarlenda said, it comes down to what people are used to eating.

"Most people in our culture and time are squeamish about eating cicadas," he said. "But in ancient civilizations like ancient Greece and Rome, or places like Japan, they are considered a delicacy. Native Americans, and other aboriginals, ate them."

Brave individuals aren't the only ones who find the cicadas a good snack. When cicadas emerge in the numbers they are now, they become a strong food source for most wild animals and, as some may have noticed, pets.

Threat To Plants And Pets

Dog owners may have seen their pets put on a few extra pounds during these weeks of cicada proliferation. Local animal hospitals have been inundated with phone calls and office visits from concerned pet owners asking what will happen to their pets if they eat cicadas.

"I have not experienced any toxicity or life-threatening results," veterinarian Aarah Craig says

Craig, of Kirkwood Animal Hospital, estimates she sees three to five dogs a week and that the hospital receives about five calls a day asking about cicadas. While the cicadas are not too harmful to dogs, Craig said that excessive consumption could lead to vomiting and diarrhea. She also has seen one dog that visibly had abdominal pain from eating too many cicadas.

"Everything we've seen has been mild and responds to treatment really well," Craig said. "We do systemic treatment -- we treat the vomiting, diarrhea and other symptoms. Though, I could see how, if an animal didn't respond to treatment, it needs to be kept with a vet, but that has not been our experience as of yet."

As far as preventing pets from eating cicadas, Craig's best advice was to put a muzzle on dogs when they're outside, since owners have been telling her that they cannot stop their dogs from eating the insects.

Just as in pets, Chip Tynan, manager of the Horticultural Answer Service at the Missouri Botanical Gardens, says that the cicadas, while bountiful, pose very little threat to plant life.

"They don't really hurt the plants," Tynan said. "They're one of those insects that does most of their feeding as larvae. They don't do much feeding as adults."

 

Cicadas, according to Tynan, "are no threat to flowers. They only lay their eggs in woody plants: trees and shrubs, but mostly trees.The only plants at risk are young saplings planted this year, and if the main trunk is two inches or less in diameter, but primarily one inch."

According to Tynan, a worst-case scenario would mean a cicada lays her eggs in the stem or trunk of a sapling, which weakens the area and causes that part of the plant to break off. But if there are buds below the damages area, the plant will not die.

If a gardener wants to protect the plant because it is a "high-value sapling," as Tynan put it, or carries sentimental value, the best solution would be to cover the plant with netting that touches the ground and covers the top so cicadas can't crawl under or try an aerial attack. It is very important, however, that the netting be porous and breathable.

"You don't want to cover your plants in plastic and fry them in the heat of the summer," Tynan said. "One clever individual recommended wrapping them in tulle."

Cicada Stir-fry

1 onion, minced2 tbsps fresh coriander (cilantro), chopped

1 tbsp fresh gingerroot, minced

3/4 cup sliced carrots

3/4 cup chopped cauliflower and/or broccoli

1 can water chestnuts

3/4 cup bean sprouts

3/4 cup snow peas

40 blanched cicadas

1. Capture cicadas at night as they emerge from the ground. Blanche for 1 minute in boiling water. They can now frozen or used immediately.

2. In a wok, heat two tablespoons of vegetable oil. Add ingredients in the order listed above when those in the most recent addition are partially cooked.

3. Serve over whole-grain rice and add soy sauce to taste. Yield: 4 main course servings (Reprinted courtesy, Mo. Dept. of Conservation.)

Ryan Schuessler, a student at the University of Missouri Columbia, is a summer intern at the Beacon.

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