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First Person: The Sounds, Tastes And Biology Of Cicadas

A cicada (Jin Kemoole/Flickr)
A cicada (Jin Kemoole/Flickr)

It’s been 17 years since we last heard the sound of the Brood X cicada. Any day now, trillions of them will emerge out of the ground in parts of the eastern and Midwestern United States. It’s a wonder of nature that we get to witness once every 17 years.

Now, cicadas and Brood X have been an inspiration to researchers well beyond the world of entomology. Below, we’ve got three stories on the remarkable things humankind has learned from these insects.


MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: The last time Brood X emerged was in 2004. And Jenna Jadin was a PhD student in evolutionary biology and ecology at the University of Maryland at the time. A well-known cicada expert, Mike Raupp, a professor at the University of Maryland, he had been inundated with press calls about the cicada emergence.

JENNA JADIN: So he created a class for graduate students who are interested in doing public science outreach, i.e. helping him take on the press and dealing with the cicadas.

CHAKRABARTI: So Jenna enrolled and the class gave her an idea.

JADIN: I thought, OK, I’m going to amuse Mike and I’m going to make a cookbook. So my thought with the cookbook was, well, this is a really good way to demystify these insects that everyone finds very frightening because they come out in the thousands, and they’re everywhere and they run into you. And if we can say, Ha ha, you know, look at this little picture of an insect in a Kiss The Cook apron and look at these recipes, we can just grab these things and eat them.

It’s a way to experience nature, for yourself, with your family. But it’s also a way to say, OK, you know, they’re that easy to catch, they’re that easy to cook. And we have this sort of power over them. You know, maybe they’re not so scary. Maybe there’s something we can enjoy, and appreciate and we can learn something about this wonderful natural phenomenon that happens only in the eastern coast of the U.S.

JADIN: We are constantly talking about how by 2050, there’ll be 9 billion people in the world. We need to figure out as a people what we are going to do to sustain that kind of population rate. There’s no one solution to that. And certainly eating insects is not the solution, but it is one of the solutions. They take much less water to grow than any other kind of livestock, their food stock to protein conversion rate, which means like, how much food do you give them and how much protein do they pull out of it? They’re about eight to 12 times more efficient than cattle.

They’re about six to eight times more efficient than goats, and sheep and pigs. They’re twice as efficient as poultry. They emit less methane, they emit less ammonia. So they are overall, if we need to get animal protein or just good protein, insects are a really, really good climate friendly choice.

We’re looking through the recipes again now, my favorites, and I think it says this in the end. My favorite, very simple, very tasty, are chocolate covered cicadas. I would say start going out in the evenings about now or in a week from now and see if you can find the grubs, catch the grubs. When they start coming out, they will be coming out in large numbers, usually. Get them, put them in a bag, freeze them gently to sleep.

When you’re about to use them, quickly blanch them just to get any potential soil, bacteria or fungus or whatever is on them, off of them. And then what you do is you take them and put them on a pan in the oven. I would recommend on top of parchment paper. And you roast them for about 15 minutes at 225 degrees Fahrenheit. Ideally, what you want them to do is sort of harden up and dry out. And then they sort of have almost a soft nut kind of texture and taste. And then meanwhile, take whatever chocolate is your favorite. I’m a fan of milk chocolate, high quality milk chocolate. And melt it in a double boiler over a low heat. And then you just take the cicadas out, you dip them in the chocolate, place on wax paper and refrigerate until they’re hardened.

CHAKRABARTI: Jenna Jadin is author of the cookbook “Cicada-licious.” She is an evolutionary biologist who focuses on public science outreach, working with governmental organizations and international NGOs on climate change, forests, agriculture and related human conflict.

‘Biology of Cicadas’

CHAKRABARTI: So insect protein, one place of inspiration that the cicadas have a lot to teach us. What about other uses or other ideas that the structure and the biology of cicadas can inspire? Well, this is Marianne Alleyne, professor of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

MARIANNE ALLEYNE: I study bio-inspired design where I look at insects to see if we can get any inspiration from them for new innovations.

CHAKRABARTI: For example, insects have inspired six legged robots. They’ve inspired robots that can jump. Termite mounds have inspired passive heating and cooling architectural design.

ALLEYNE: We decided to work on cicadas because certain research groups in Australia have already found that cicada wings can be super hydrophobic, which means they repel water. Water cannot collect on it. And they may also be antimicrobial, that the structures on the wings actually kill microbes. So you can already see the combination of those two functions would be great to have on surfaces, on hospital, flat surfaces, or even in tubing.

You know what we think about now are respirators and such so that microbes can’t collect, and the water can collect. We are now at this stage, we’ve really studied the biology. We’ve really studied these different structures and different species of cicada. And we are now able to fabricate these structures, which means now the engineers in our collaborative group can now go into, OK, what can we make with this? What kind of materials can we make and implement in different applications?

For me, the biologist, it’s now really great to go sort of backwards along the bio-inspired design framework and go, OK, now I can make these different kinds of structures. I can make these different kind of materials. How does that help me explain what I’m seeing in nature? Why has natural selection caused the cicada to give these kinds of structures or the species a different kind of structure? And why is that important?

I’m still amazed that I actually study cicadas. I grew up in the Netherlands where they don’t have cicadas. And then I moved to California, where they have cicadas, but they’re usually very small ones in the desert. And I don’t think I ever collected one when I worked on my insect collections as I was going to school and studying there. Then when I moved to Illinois, they have a lot of cicadas here and I love them. For me, it is summer. It is being able to sit outside. They don’t bother anybody. I really, really like them. It’s one of my favorite parts of the Midwest, for sure.

A really good place to find periodical cicadas, no matter where it is, is cemeteries. Because in cemeteries there’s often trees that have been there for [a] 17 year period. So you get really nice buildups of multiple occurrences of the emergences. So those trees have been there a long time. If there was an emergence there 17 years ago, there will probably be another emergence. So I get my kids in the car, we drive to a cemetery somewhere where I’ve heard that you can find periodicals, and then we just roam through the cemetery and try to find periodical cicadas.

CHAKRABARTI: Marianne Alleyne, professor of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

‘Sounds of Cicadas’

CHAKRABARTI: So we’ve been talking about the many ways we can appreciate cicadas more fully, and how they inspire researchers well beyond entomology. What about their song? For that, we turn to David Rothenberg.

DAVID ROTHENBERG: I’m a musician, and philosopher, and author and professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. And I spent a lot of time making music with animals and their sounds.

CHAKRABARTI: He plays with all kinds of animals, birds, whales, pond life and cicadas.

ROTHENBERG: They fly all over the place. The cicadas jumping on accordions, clarinets, fingers. At the very end, one flies into my eye and I just have to laugh because, you know, they must be so fed up with us after all these hours.

CHAKRABARTI: David says the joy he gets from making music with animals and cicadas started with an important lesson he learned in his youth: how to listen.

ROTHENBERG: I guess I was six years old. My parents decide we should move from New York City to Connecticut, we lived by this river. And I like to go out by myself and walk along there and listen to sounds. And just sort of talk to myself, and scheme and invent whole little worlds. And then I start listening. And then I got a little older. I got interested in birds and identifying them, all the sounds they made. And then when I was in high school, I learned that not so far away was one musician who played saxophone with whales and wolves.

And I learned about him and started to think I could do something like that. Cicadas are extremely loud and they are making these sounds with tymbals, the sides of their abdomen vibrating them. So what makes it musical, is it’s the same sound over and over again. The males are doing it to attract some attention, and they perform it over and over and over again. So whoever decided this was called song throughout history must have recognized there’s something like human song in that idea. That it’s not talking or a call, but it’s kind of a song.

You just have this beautiful mix of sounds that is anything but random, it’s organized. The strongest feeling when you’re playing with cicadas is a sense of humility. You’re just one sound among millions, literally millions of cicadas per acre. They make this huge hum. [These] huge rhythms. I’m just one more sound mixing into that. So you can’t make yourself too much the center of the story. You’re joining into something much larger than any individual could ever be.

You also feel, I really feel my own sense of what music is expanding by spending so much time with these sounds. And, then when you’re done, you’ll still be dreaming this frequency. These sounds are like deep inside your subconscious and they don’t go away. They’re still there. And then when you hear them anew in the outside world, you say, Oh, there it is again. We’re part of these cycles. And so it feels like you’re at the edge of something new, and mysterious and magical. And I think it’s great that these scientists, when they classified this organism already in the beginning of the 19th century, they said magicicada, must call this magicicada.

I definitely find when I do something new that I don’t expect, when I do something new, there’s always interesting surprises. And so it’s important to me, even though you have less control, and the sound might not be as perfect, to go out there in these environments of sound and figure out how your sound can join in. So the whole process is incredibly transforming to my own sense of what counts as music, what is music, what is not music. By just hanging out with these cicadas, spending time with them.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s musician and philosopher David Rothenberg, one of three researchers we talked to who are drawing inspiration from periodical cicadas. Brood X and the trillions of cicadas associated with it are set to emerge in a marvelous and spectacular demonstration of nature any day now.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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