The emergence of the “Great Southern Brood” of 13-year cicadas has created a food windfall for bug-eating predators.
The noisy insects don’t have any toxins and they can’t bite or sting. Their only defense is in their numbers.
“Their strategy for surviving is to give the predators so much potential food that they can never finish them all off," says Chris Hartley, an entomologist of the Butterfly House in Chesterfield, Missouri. "That’s why they emerge all at once.”
Cicadas make a tasty meal for everything from birds to ants to lizards. Dogs love them. And, Hartley says, so do some people.
“Cicadas just like all insects are very close relatives of crustaceans. So there is essentially no difference between these guys and shrimp, or crabs, or anything like that.”
Entomologist Chris Hartley sautés cicadas in butter and garlic. (Photo by Art Chimes)
Hartley prepares to cook up some cicadas in a Butterfly House classroom. He begins with a bowl full of orangey-white blobs with bulging black eyes – cicadas he’s been storing in a freezer.
“The newly emerged adults, the ones that are still white," he explains. "And they were caught before they had a chance to really harden up, so they’re a lot like soft shelled crabs. They’re still very soft.”
Turning on a hot plate, Hartley adds some vegetable oil, a half-stick of butter and garlic. Eventually the cicadas follow.
While it is a new experience for this reporter, it is not for Hartley.
“Well, I’ve done many different kinds of entomophagy classes over the years,” he says. "That means insect eating in Greek. But really the cicadas and other insects can be treated in just about any way you would treat shrimp.”
Hartley says you can deep fry them, bake them, cook them with soy sauce in a stir fry or sauté them.
“And again we eat shrimp, crayfish, lobster, crab…whereas you know for people in other parts of the world, including Africa, Australia, South America, North America and throughout Asia, eating insects has always been part of just what you do.”
Cicada scampi. Bon appétit! (Photo by Art Chimes)
Once he adds the cicadas to the pan, they begin popping.
“The reason they’re popping like that is that we’re using the whole body here, and actually amazingly enough the things like the wings which are just thin little sheets of exoskeleton tend to swell up like balloons when they’re exposed to heat like that, and then you get the popping,” says Hartley.
After a few minutes, the cicadas complete their transformation from soft and squishy to brown and crunchy. He tops them off with a little fresh parsley and lemon juice and voila! Cicada scampi.
If one ignores all the little beady black eyes staring up from the plate, it actually looks, well, pretty tasty. Hartley take the first bite.
“Mm. Nice, crisp. Nice flavor of butter and garlic," he says. "They’re wonderful.”
This reporter gives it a try and finds it's actually really good.
The crunchy, shrimp-like cicadas will probably die off in the St. Louis area in the next couple weeks. Hartley hopes that in the meantime, people will at least try to enjoy them — on the dinner plate, or otherwise.