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Commentary: Here's the buzz on why you shouldn't eat cicadas

Michelle Reynolds, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals on

Published in Op Eds

“Just … why?” That’s the question that is baffling friends I’ve talked to about the flurry of strange online articles offering instructions on how to catch, kill and cook cicadas. As scientists make a mad dash to gather as much information as they can during the few short weeks they’ll have with these fascinating animals whose lives are almost completely hidden from view, it’s astounding that a few people’s first thought is “I wonder what would happen if I boiled these insects alive and sprinkled them with Mrs. Dash?”

Can cicadas get a little noisy? Sure. So could we as teenagers. But at least 13- and 17-year-old cicadas only get loud during the day. And my parents would likely point out that they also aren’t annoying anyone by playing “Ice Ice Baby” on repeat. (I still maintain that it’s a darn good song.)

There are plenty of reasons not to eat cicadas, starting with the fact that boiling or freezing any animal to death just isn’t a cool thing to do. Animals aren’t ours to use as we please, regardless of whether we think they’re charismatic, relate to them or appreciate their taste in music. And cicadas are impressive musicians. Despite having no vocal cords, just a small vibrating organ—the tymbal—they produce sounds that can be heard more than a mile and a half away. The “chorusing” we usually hear is made by males to woo females, as so many songs produced by males seem intended to do. Girls go crazy when they hear a tymbal, you might say.

Cicadas don’t even need a hi-hat with a souped-up tempo to keep perfect time during all those years spent underground. Researchers think they might keep track by tasting minute changes in trees’ root fluid. And they need to know exactly when to surface: when the ground temperature hits 64 degrees. But even being able to figure out the year and the temperature correctly still wouldn’t give cicadas all the information they need to emerge at the right time. An insect who burrowed down a few feet would be in cooler ground than one who burrowed only a few inches. Scientists still aren’t sure how this group effort is conducted and formed. It’s a hell of a concept.

And cicadas, unlike the college kids you might hire, are happy to provide free lawn-care services. They also don’t show up smelling like Natty Light. These singing insects leave your flowers and vegetables alone and hang out on trees and shrubs instead. The females naturally prune the branches as they dig tiny trenches in them for their eggs, which helps the plants produce more flowers and food for pollinators and for us. When the eggs hatch, the little nymphs who emerge from them stop, collaborate and burrow, aerating the soil, sometimes as far as 6 feet down (the same depth my family would’ve chosen for my CD collection). And when the cicadas’ brief lives are over, their discarded exoskeletons become chemical-free fertilizer.

Cicadas don’t typically live long enough to damage trees or shrubs, but if you’re worried about young plants, wrap them in spun polyolefin and these little gardeners will bust a left and head to the next block. Pesticides don’t work on them (and please don’t use those anyway, because they harm wildlife).

 

And if all this isn’t enough to persuade you to stop messing with cicadas, consider this: They can carry Massospora cicadina, a fungal pathogen that makes them behave erratically as it replaces their abdomens with fungal spores so that the lower half of their bodies fall off. Mmm, fungal spores.

So, let’s let cicadas play that funky music for a couple of weeks and enjoy this rare double emergence. If these mysterious individuals can be patient enough to wait underground for nearly two decades just to enjoy one month alive above ground, we can be patient enough to let them have it. Word to your mother.

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Michelle Reynolds is a senior writer for The PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA, 23510, PETA.org.

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