In 2004, I was writing my first book, “Natural Histories,” for the University of Tennessee Press. I was completely aware that Brood X was due to emerge, but where? Needless to say, I approached May in a heightened state of alert. As it turned out I didn’t have to wait long or go far to find the creeping horde. The first report came from a coworker at Ijams Nature Center. On May 6, Ben Nanny was moving nursery plants around on the west side of the park and discovered little tunnels and larvae under some pots. This was something I had to see for myself. I found the holes Ben described as I lifted away the same black nursery containers. Many still had the odd nymphs waiting at the top of their tunnels. As the morning sun filled the depression, the plump Hemipterans scurried back down into the darkness of their holes. Like a David Lynch movie it was unsettling, even eerie, and that was a word I’d hear often over the next three weeks.
I had recently read that some cultures eat cicadas. According to the “Eat-A-Bug Cookbook,” by David George Gordon, Native Americans dry roasted cicadas on hot rocks. If you don’t have a campfire, you can sauté them in butter, boil them like lobster, bake them on a cookie sheet (five minutes at 350 degrees) or batter them and deep fry the insects. (If you try any of this at home, please remember to gather living cicadas and not use dead ones.)
That year we had so many in the trees around the nature center that we decided to cook and eat a few on live TV for WBIR. Peg Beute was on Ijams staff at the time, and she could cook anything. Peg gathered a bag of cicadas the day before the news spot and popped them in the freezer. The next afternoon she battered the bugs and deep-fried them. And they were good! They actually tasted as though they came from the produce aisle like fried squash or zucchini.
You might wonder how millions of these cicadas remain in sync over such a long period of time in the darkness. Fact is, they don’t. Some fall out of their natural rhythm. In late spring 2003, the late insect aficionado Rikki Hall and Hellbender Press writer, heard a few Brood Xers in the trees (one year early) and at least one lone male buzzing away in 2005 (one year late). That illustrated that this natural cycle isn’t perfectly in tune.
But May 2021 will be here soon, and we will see if the bulk of the brood is still on schedule or whether climate change or other factors has affected the timing.
(In remembrance of Rikki and Peg).
Stephen Lyn Bales is a natural historian and the author of three UT Press books:
"Natural Histories," "Ephemeral by Nature," and "Ghost Birds."
He’s also a monthly speaker (via Zoom) for the UT Arboretum Society.