By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Montclairians will get to experience the big nature event of 2021 in their own backyards — the great Brood X cicada swarm.
The 17-year event has been happening for millions of years, and will again result in trillions of periodical cicadas in the northeast moving from their underground homes to molt on trees, forming into adults to mate, and creating a spectacular show for four to six weeks starting this month.
While annual cicadas come out every late July, Brood X, which spent 99% of their lives underground, will emerge in droves in May, creating quite a phenomenon, said Montclair State University professor Cortni Borgerson, who is also an anthropologist, conservation biologist and an explorer for National Geographic.
“After a year that kind of sucked, this will be an ancient, unique event in our own backyard. And it’s an ‘animal’ event you can experience up close,” she said.
The last time Brood X appeared was in 2004; some might remember the Brood II emergence in 2013. These insects, or magicicadas, are of the genus of the 13-year and 17-year periodical cicadas, and their populations number 1 million per acre, versus the annual few thousand per acre, Borgerson said. The 13- and 17-year cycles are a survival mechanism, as safety comes in numbers, she said. But while many will not meet the fate of being chomped up by wildlife, their numbers will nevertheless create a feast.
“It will be like Thanksgiving for the animals and the birds that feast on them. You will probably see some very fat squirrels and raccoons,” said Borgerson, adding don’t worry if your dog imbibes.
The periodical cicadas come out earlier than the annual insects, after at least seven days of 64-degree weather, and should begin emerging in late May this year. They are also more menacing in appearance than the annual green ones. They are about 1.3 inches in length, black with yellow/orange wings and red bulging eyes, and were notated by the early colonists who ran into them as “large locusts,” which they are not.
But as scary as they look, Borgerson says they don’t bite, are quite clumsy and aren’t great flyers. And they won’t eat your vegetable, fruit or flower gardens.
“They bump into things and people all the time,” she said.
In late May, residents will begin to see tunnels in the ground near trees as the nymphs, which have fed on xylem fluids from the trees over the 17 years, emerge. They will crawl up trees, houses or fences and molt, spending a few days waiting for their exoskeletons to harden. The young adult, or teneral, is white, but darkens within hours and forms its hard wings, Borgerson said.
Sandy Sorkin, head of the Montclair Birding Club, said 17 years ago they came out in droves on the west side of town.
“The cicadas were over ankle deep with all of the joy of crunching as you walked,” Sorkin said.
Borgerson said the eggs are laid in younger trees, not in older, well-established trees, adding that this spring would not be an optimal time to plant a new tree.
According to a map by the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, the emergence of Brood X should be big in North Jersey.
Deb DeSalvo, environmental educator at the Bonsal Preserve, recalls sitting on her inlaws’ porch on Norman Road and watching “the fly-bys” with her children during the last Brood swarm. She said in 2013, the cicada Brood II hot-spot area was between Prospect Avenue and Valley Road.
HOW TO EXPERIENCE THEM
As evening settles in, set out to where the last periodical cicadas emerged and follow the sound of the males, which congregate in “chorus trees,” Borgerson advises.
“The sound will be as loud as leaf blowers and will definitely drown out traffic,” she added.
The sound is from the males attempting to attract a mate with their mating song, using their tymbals. Look for the tunnels in the ground, or in some cases mud turrets inches high, for signs of nymph emergence.
Borgerson suggests that those who want to get up close and personal with the insects stand still with arms spread and snap or click, mimicking the sound the females make. The male, attracted to the sound, should land on your arm.
A rare sight is to witness the emergence of a young adult from the exoskeleton, which happens in the evening hours, she said.
This is also when food enthusiasts should gather the insects, loaded with protein, for eating, said Borgerson, who also studies and teaches about edible native insects.
“You want them when they are white and new before they get crunchy,” she said. She sautees them in a pan of water and then uses them in tacos, dips them in chocolate and even garnishes Bloody Marys with them.
“They look and cook like shrimp and have a crabby, nutty, slightly asparagus taste,” she said. (For Borgerson’s cicada taco recipe see below.)
Residents can also become citizen scientists and contribute photos and observations on an app called Cicada Safari.
Jose German Gomez, head of the Northeast Earth Coalition and an avid gardener, said he is looking forward to the cicada event in more ways than one.
“They are also beneficial insects for the environment, as they emerge from the ground they will be aerating the soil, and when they die, their bodies will be fertilizing the soil,” German Gomez said.
He suggests residents should stop “demonizing” the cicadas and enjoy the show.
“Observe the cicadas, enjoy the mating call of male cicadas and learn about their fascinating 13-17 years of underground life. The fact that they live less than 50 days in the surface is just amazing!”
Fried and battered cicada
By Montclair State University professor Cortni Borgerson
- 3-4 teneral cicada (work quick and harvest right after watching them emerge- science and snack!)
- 1 egg
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1/2 cup Oil or butter for pan
- Salt and pepper to taste
Tortilla and best fixings for the cicada (which have a mild green, nutty, crabby taste):
- 1 warmed Tortilla
- 2 Tbsp Fresh chopped Cilantro
- Lime wedge
- 2 slices Avocado
- Sriracha creme sauce (1/2-1 tsp Sriracha mixed with 2 tsp plain unsweetened yogurt (or Mayo, use what’s in your fridge)
- 1 tbsp Chopped roasted peanuts
- After watching the cicada emerge, harvest 3-4 while still white and freeze while you heat your oil to humanely kill them.
- Heat the oil in a skillet.
- While it’s heating, mix the flour salt and pepper in one bowl and beat the egg into a second bowl
- Dip each cicada first into the egg and then roll in the flour mixture
- Fry until they are golden, fragrant fried dollops of bliss
- Add to tortillas and top with the avocado, cilantro, sriracha sauce, peanuts and a squeeze of lime
- Try to resist a second