Awaiting the Emergence: Naturalists, Chefs Prepare for Brood X

In the next few weeks, Loudoun will be hearing, seeing and maybe even tasting the cicadas of the legendary Brood X after a 17-year wait.

They’re the subject of anticipation and plenty of buzz as the region gets ready for their unique sound, wild looks and impressive numbers.

“You’re going to see them everywhere—neighborhoods, forests, everywhere. They’ll be all over the sidewalks. They’ll be squished on the roads. And you’re going to hear them—they can pack a punch for their size,” said Nova Parks roving naturalist Matt Felperin.

For Felperin and other local nature lovers, the wait for this year’s periodical cicadas is what makes it special. Some Loudouners remember Brood X’s 2004 and 1987 appearances, but it will be a new experience for a new generation and for transplants to the area.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, there are 15 active broods of periodical cicadas in the United States, coming out every 13 or 17 years. But it’s Brood X (pronounced Brood 10—the X is a Roman numeral) that makes headlines because of its sheer numbers. It’s also known as the “great Eastern brood,” and the DMV is a Brood X hotspot thanks to the region’s climate, ecosystem and tree species.

“We have the right habitat here that supports this species and the right climate and so it’s like the perfect storm,” Felperin said. 

The cicadas spend 17 years underground getting nourishment from tree roots. When it’s time to emerge, they climb trees as nymphs, then shed their exoskeletons and emerge as winged adults to mate and lay eggs. The females lay eggs in live wood, and later in the summer, the juveniles drop to the ground, burrow down and start the 17-year cycle again.

The periodical cicadas’ famous sound, one of the most memorable parts of every cycle for humans, is the males’ mating song created by rubbing their wings together.

Felperin, who grew up as a nature-loving kid in Montgomery County, was a teen when Brood X made its last appearance and is excited for a second chance to experience their sound and unique appearance. The periodical cicadas are a different species from the annual Dog-day cicadas that come out every August. While those annual cicadas are known for their green camouflage, the 17-year species has a more striking appearance, with dramatic red eyes and translucent orange wings.

As a self-described “bird nerd,” Felperin will also be observing how the region’s other species react to the emergence. It will mean a feast for Northern Virginia’s bird population, and some other animals, like squirrels, may join the fun.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how other animals react—whether it’s eating them or just being surprised by the presence,” he said.

Felperin will also be taking humans out to observe cicadas in various stages, with “Cicadamania” events scheduled at several Nova Parks in coming weeks. Loudouners can catch Felperin at Algonkian Regional Park on Saturday, May 22.

Protecting Plants

While Brood X is mostly cause for excitement and curiosity, the Loudoun Extension Office has been getting calls from residents concerned about potential damage to plants and trees. Beth Sastre, commercial horticulturist for the extension office, says that except for very young trees and vines, there’s no cause for alarm. The biggest concern is about damage to pencil-thin branches of young trees as female cicadas lay eggs in live branches. The extension office has been warning farmers and vineyard owners for several years, she said, encouraging them to avoid new plantings until after Brood X makes its exit. Mature plants rarely suffer damage, she added, but may require some pruning. 

The cicadas are partial to woody plants, she said, so vegetable and flower gardens aren’t at high risk. The insects also avoid conifers because of sticky sap. Sastre’s office is recommending insecticide use for commercial fruit trees and vines in some cases. However, Sastre does not recommend insecticides for homeowners, since they’re more likely to kill beneficial insects than to prevent cicada damage. Homeowners should instead opt for netting for young trees. The county’s farmers and vineyard owners are ready, she says, so for the most part Loudoun can simply enjoy the excitement.

“Personally, I think it’s wonderful how Mother Nature behaves,” Sastre said. “Most of the farmers knew it was coming so they are prepared.”

Early May’s cool temperatures have slowed this year’s emergence, although Sastre reports sightings as early as late April. And Felperin spotted a few early-bugs during an outing with Loudoun Now in Leesburg last week. 

Taste Like Shrimp

Cicadas don’t bite or sting, and they’re edible for animals and people. Felperin is looking forward to sampling his first cicada, and Loudouners will find them on the menu in at least one local restaurant.

“We have this stigma against eating insects, but we love crabs and shrimp and other invertebrates which are basically like water bugs,” Felperin said. “If it’s made the right way, I’m totally in.”

Chef Tobias Padovano at Leesburg’s Cocina on Market hasn’t cooked with cicadas yet, but he’s experienced with preparing grasshoppers, which are featured on the restaurant’s regular menu. Padovano is excited to start whipping up cicada tacos as soon as the brood emerges. Grasshoppers are a traditional element in the cuisine of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, which is Cocina’s specialty. Padovano and many customers are big fans of the fried grasshoppers, called chapulines.

“They’re beautiful—I absolutely love them. They’re kind of like a very earthy popcorn,” Padovano said, adding that grasshoppers are also considered a high-protein superfood.

Padovano hasn’t had a chance to cook or taste cicadas yet, but he’s been doing tons of research in preparation for this spring, and by all accounts they taste like shrimp.

The restaurant orders dehydrated grasshoppers from a market near Mexico City, so they’re ready to cook for tacos and other recipes. With local cicadas, the process will be more time consuming, but Padovano is embracing the challenge. 

Padovano and his team will forage for cicadas with help from restaurant regulars, then freeze, boil and dehydrate in the oven overnight to prepare for cooking. He’s planning cicada tacos with mole verde, fresh radish and avocado for Cocina on Market. And for home cooks, the possibilities are endless: think curries, Asian-style stir fries and barbecue flavors. But Padovano recommends removing the legs and wings for best taste and texture.

“Whatever you can do with shrimp, you should probably be able to do with these,” he said.

As Loudouners are planning to experience Brood X, the cicadas are a new source of wonder after a challenging year.

“It’s essentially a new experience,” Felperin said. “The way that COVID has given us a curiosity for the outdoors has really kind of opened our eyes. We’re more open to the idea of these creepy crawlies whereas maybe in years past it was just kind of a nuisance. … I think people are ready for this.”

Nova Parks’ Cicadamania programs take place at several regional parks, including Algonkian Regional Park on May 22 at 5:30 p.m. Cost is $5 per person. Go to novaparks.com for details and registration.

Cocina on Market will add cicada tacos to the menu as soon as Brood X emerges. For more information, go to cocinaonmarket.com. Create your own user feedback survey

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