Northeast Ohio hosts millions of cicadas

(Photo: Getty Images)

A brood of cicadas that slumbered underground for nearly 17 years has emerged in northeast Ohio crawling, flying, and hitting buildings and trees.

While above ground, the bugs will eat a little, mate a lot, then die.

The 17-year cicadas arrive in the millions and though they’re distinct from locusts, by the sheer number of them you might think you’re experiencing one of the 10 Biblical plagues.

“Some people are creeped out,” said Eric Barrett, an assistant professor and Ohio State University Extension educator in Mahoning County. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).

The early sightings of this brood of 17-year cicadas in Ohio have been in five counties: Jefferson, Columbiana, Mahoning, Stark, and Trumbull.

“We’re trying to help people not overreact,” Barrett said.

Those who are less than enthusiastic about the insects’ arrival may need some reminders. The cicadas don’t bite. They don’t suck blood nor do much harm to trees. But young shrubs or trees under 5 feet tall could benefit from having netting, such as cheesecloth, spread over them to keep the female cicadas from making slits into pencil-sized branches to deposit their eggs, Barrett said.

“They’re not doing enough damage to be any kind of problem,” he said.

The 17-year cicada differs from the annual cicada that arrives every summer in July and August. The two types look and sound distinct. Once they come out of the ground and shed their outer covering, 17-year cicadas become adults with red eyes, black bodies, and yellowish-orange wings. Annual cicadas have brown or green bodies, black or brown eyes, and black or green-tinged wings.

Far from the looks of the cicadas, what sets the 17-year cicadas apart is their incessant mating call.

“It’s a remarkable thing. It can also get on your nerves,” said David Shetlar, a professor emeritus with CFAES.  

Their distinctive humming can be deafening for the birds and people around them, to the point that some birds and people will temporarily leave an area just to find solace, Shetlar said.

By showing up in the millions all at once, 17-year cicadas overwhelm their predators. The predators can eat some of the cicadas, but not all of them, leaving enough behind to guarantee the success of the next generation.

“It can be annoying for the cat or dog owner who watches his pet come in from the yard and upchuck some cicadas because he ate too many of them,” Shetlar said.

After a few more weeks of mating, this brood of 17-year cicadas will die. However, the state hosts other broods, and the next one will greet Ohioans in 2021, mostly in the western counties.  Then in 2025, the southern tip of Ohio will witness another brood rising up out of the ground to fly awkwardly about, Shetlar said.

“It’s a big entomological event,” he said.

As an entomologist who has studied the emergence of various broods of cicadas over the years, Shetlar can also boast an experience most others cannot: He’s eaten them.

He what?  

“These things are perfectly edible,” he told a colleague a few years ago, just before plucking a live cicada from a tree and popping it into his mouth.

The cicada had the consistency of milk chocolate with cream that oozes out of the center. Only it wasn’t sugary cream oozing out.

“All the internal organs are pretty soft,” he said.

As for the taste, the cicada had a mild, nutty flavor, like roasted almonds, said Shetlar, who pointed out that cicadas are not part of his regular diet. The meat he usually eats is both dead and cooked.

Even so, that wasn’t his first time eating a cicada. In the 1970s, Shetlar ate one while teaching a course at Penn State University titled Foraging Off the Bottom of the Food Chain.

“You learn pretty quickly there are certain insects you don’t eat,” he said.

But everyone’s standards on that are different.

CFAES News Team
For more information, contact: 

Dave Shetlar​​​​​​

Eric Barrett