This May, cicadas will emerge in tremendous numbers across much of Northern Virginia, Maryland and Washington. The cicadas are from Brood X, and they’ve been living underground for the past 17 years.
Periodical cicadas are warm-weather insects. They emerge only after the ground temperature reaches the mid-60s, about eight inches below the surface. Cicadas don’t get fooled into emerging during January thaws or during warm spells in early spring. It’s all about the ground temperature.
Cicada numbers across the Washington area should peak during late May, but it could occur in mid-May if we have a warm spring or early June if we have a cold spring. But it’s assured that some time during late spring, we’ll be swarmed by the clumsy buggers.
It’s likely, however, that Prince William County and points south will not have periodical cicadas this year. That region was the epicenter for the 2013 Brood II cicada emergence. The dividing line between Brood II and Brood X runs through D.C.'s southern suburbs. Here’s a link to a map showing the locations of Brood II and X.
The cicada life cycle
Once the ground is sufficiently warm, cicada nymphs crawl out of the ground at night or during the early-morning hours and climb trees, buildings or anything above ground level. Initially, cicadas appear with a milky-white color and a soft shell, but that color will darken as their shells harden.
They next shed their exoskeletons, and their wings expand, allowing them to fly and enter adulthood.
Male cicadas make a loud noise with timbals, drumlike structures on their abdomens, to attract females. The mating sounds of cicadas have been measured at over 90 decibels. Some describe the sound to be similar to alien aircraft in sci-fi movies.
When male and female cicadas meet, they mate, facing away from each other. Three to five days later, the female cuts slits into small, live tree branches and deposits over two dozen fertilized eggs.
It takes about six weeks for the eggs to hatch, and the young cicadas resemble tiny termites. They feed on tree sap, then fall to the ground, where they crawl under the surface, tunnel and feed before emerging in the open air to mate 17 years later.
Cicadas will die two to six weeks after mating.
You can actually eat them, if you’re brave
Cicadas are edible and nutritious. They’re high in protein and low in fat, and are best for eating when they first emerge and have a white, soft exoskeleton, much like a soft-shell crab is particularly good to eat before its shell hardens.
After the cicada’s exoskeleton hardens, they become chewy or crunchy to eat, depending on how they’re cooked. But remove the wings before eating; they’ll get stuck between your teeth.
Cicadas have been described to taste like shrimp, asparagus and nuts. That’s quite a range of flavors, so back in 2013, I performed a cicada taste test with Brood II cicadas. I found the bugs tasted more like chewy asparagus than shrimp or nuts. I fried them in butter and garlic but found their texture rather unpleasant. The taste was okay, however.
So when Brood X emerges in May, I don’t plan on feasting on cicadas. Once was enough, even with a yummy butter and garlic sauce.