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5 Things We Learned from the 2021 Brood X Cicadas

The world has changed in countless ways since Brood X last emerged in 2004, and with those changes have come new ways of studying Brood X, as well as new evidence of the potential human impact on the insects.

Below are five key takeaways from this year’s Brood X emergence, and insights into what these takeaways could mean for the future of the cicadas and the ecosystem we share with them.

1. Changes in Brood X’s time of emergence could be a sign of climate change

Though cicadas have existed for millions of years, and in that time experienced many significant climate changes, the long-term impact of human-induced climate change on cicadas is still uncertain. However, there are some indications that rising temperatures could already be affecting Brood X.

In 2017, many residents of the Eastern United States noticed small numbers of Brood X cicadas appearing in their yard 4 years earlier than expected. While periodical cicadas always have a small percentage of their brood, known as “stragglers,” emerge out of cycle, the unusually large number of stragglers that appeared in 2017 was a cause for concern for many scientists.

Dr. Chris Simon, a biologist at University of Connecticut, said at the time, “It’s impossible to tell [whether climate change is playing a role], but the fact that the climate has been warmer in the last decade or two means they have experienced longer growing seasons. We think the longer growing seasons have allowed them to grow bigger, faster.”

Cicada expert Dr. Gene Kritsky of Mount St. Joseph University in Ohio also noted several significant early sightings of what should have been members of the 2021 Brood X cycle, spanning from Pennsylvania to Georgia, which he suspected could be due in part to human-induced climate change. (Source: “Why Cicadas Are Showing Up In Your Yard Four Years Early),” Popular Science.

2. The proliferation of a mysterious “zombie” fungus

As the 2021 Brood X cicadas emerged from the soil, many were infected with an invasive fungus called Massospora cicadina, which contains similar compounds to those found in psychedelic mushrooms. The fungus had devastating effects on Brood X, leaving many unable to reproduce, and even turning some cicadas into so-called “fungal zombies.”

In many cases, Massospora cicadina actually caused the entire lower abdomen of an infected cicada (including their genitals and reproductive organs) to completely slough off, leaving the cicada essentially as a walking disembodied head attached to a white fungal “plug” that sprinkled its spores when the host flew around or attempted to mate (Source: “A Fungus Causes Cicadas to Mate Like Crazy, Even After Their Butts Fall Off,” Smithsonian Magazine).

Oddly enough, the fungus sent mating behavior into overdrive for some infected males, despite literally separating them from their reproductive organs. However, this strange fact makes a bit more sense when you consider that their mating behavior may actually be the result of a “zombie-like” system-takeover by the fungus. (Source: “A Parasitic Fungus Is Turning Brood X Cicadas Into Mind-Controlled ‘Zombies’,” IndyStar).

3. Technological advancements have allowed scientists to track Brood X more effectively than ever

Obviously, the technological landscape has changed dramatically since Brood X’s last emergence in 2004, and naturally, this has led to new innovative ways for scientists to collect data on the cicadas. In 2004, iPhones didn’t exist, most phones didn’t have internet and most people did not carry a camera everywhere they went. Today, smart phones are nearly ubiquitous (especially in the US where Brood X exists) and there are many online “citizen scientist” applications and projects available where folks can share all their natural experiences.

While some of these new techniques come from advancements in satellite imaging, genetic analysis, and other formal research mechanisms, some of the most significant advancements in data collection came from user-generated data. Popular apps like iNaturalist and Cicada Safari have allowed users to self-report Brood X sightings, giving researchers access to thousands of real-time observations every day.

Cicada Safari allows users to track cicada sightings on an interactive map, and even submit photos of their sightings. In June 2021, Dr. Gene Kritsky expressed awe at the sheer number of cicada photos submitted: “[As of June 2] we have over 400,000 cicada photos submitted.” said Dr. Kritsky, “We’re getting 16,000 photos a day.” (Source: “The Brood X Cicadas Are Here — and Yes, There’s an App for That,” MIT Technology Review)

4. Overdevelopment and agriculture may cause Brood X to go extinct in some areas

Brood X populations appeared to be much sparser in many areas this year than they were in 2004. One of the major contributors to this observed population decrease may be the building of new suburbs, farms and other land development projects that require cutting down trees (where cicadas lay their eggs) and paving over previously wooded areas (preventing cicadas from emerging out of the ground). Indeed the plight of Brood X is shared with nearly all biodiversity on earth as noted in recent studies demonstrating mass extinction, the “Insect Apocalypse” and other unfortunately devastating impacts from the Anthropocene.

You can hear Dr. Aaron T. Dossey, founder of All Things Bugs, give a concise explanation of the impact of overdevelopment on cicadas here.

This problem isn’t new. According to Muhlenberg College professor of biology, Martin Edwards, the number of cicadas we’ve seen over the past several cycles is “a fraction” of the numbers we would have seen prior to European colonization. One smaller brood of periodical cicadas, Brood XI, has been extinct since about 1954 due to habitat loss.

A report by The New York Times revealed that Brood X populations in Long Island, New York may be close to extinction due to urban sprawl in the borough over the past several decades.

You can also take a look at this animated map by Axios to see how paved land in the Washington D.C. area (a major Brood X hub) has increased over the past several decades, leading to reduced cicada populations in some areas.

5. Insects are the future of sustainable protein, yet there are better options than cicadas

When collected/sourced, cooked and prepared safely, Brood X cicadas are edible, and a great source of protein. “They have a buttery texture, a delicious, nutty flavor, probably from the tannins, from the roots of the trees on which they fed,” said University of Maryland entomologist Mike Raupp in an interview with the Associated Press, “and they’re… really good with a Merlot.”

While interest around eating insects has recently peaked in the U.S. due to the arrival of Brood X, eating “bugs” is becoming much more than just a novelty! As it turns out, cicadas are not nearly as good of a sustainable food source as other insects such as crickets and mealworms. Cicadas tend to take several years (for Brood X, 17 years!) to develop, which alone makes them very impractical as a reliable food crop. Additionally, they require the roots of large trees to feed on during this development, and do not successfully produce nearly as many offspring as other insects (crickets produce around 1,500 eggs per female!). What’s more, the subterranean lifestyle of cicadas means their growing environment cannot be controlled and they are exposed to various toxins and hazards such as heavy metals, pesticides, petroleum and other pollutants in the soil – so if you’re going to eat them, try to get them from a natural area away from cities and farms if you can find one! Their long life underground also further lends itself to bioaccumulation of these kinds of toxic hazards.

In fact, insect protein may be the key to a future of genuinely sustainable agriculture. Insects require much less water and space than traditional vertebrate animal livestock (such as pigs, cows, etc.), and contain high levels of nutrients such as protein, iron, and omega 3 fatty acids. Recent studies have also shown consumption of food containing insect protein (cricket powder) can provide benefits to gut health. Visit cricketpowder.com to learn more about the emerging insect based food industry and it’s benefits for health and sustainability! We also highly recommend the comprehensive book “Insects as Sustainable Food Ingredients”.

People Behind the Science Podcast – Entrepreneur and Entomologist Dedicated to Developing Sustainable Insect-Based Products

People Behind the Science Podcast – Stories from Scientists about Science, Life, Research, and Science Careers

Dr. Aaron T. Dossey is the President, Founder, and Owner of All Things Bugs LLC, a company developing sustainable insect-based technologies and products in agriculture, food, and medicine. He is also the Founder and President of the Invertebrate Studies Institute and editor of the book Insects as Sustainable Food Ingredients.

Aaron is here with us today to talk a little about his research and tell us all about his experiences in life and science. Click to play.

Dr. Aaron T. DosseyAaron received his B.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Oklahoma State University. He was awarded his PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the University of Florida College of Medicine and conducted postdoctoral research there afterwards.

Aaron worked as a Research Entomologist for the United States Department of Agriculture for two years before launching his company.

How Crickets Could Help Save the Planet

NBC NEWS: FEB 16 2017, 11:13 AM ET
by

The world’s population is creeping up on 7.5 billion, but estimates suggest we’ll have a whopping 9 billion mouths to feed by 2050.

Unless we all stick to salads, the global production of meat will need to double in that time to feed our growing population, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations (FAO). Feed and crop production will also have to increase in kind to support livestock and our own appetites, inevitably taking up more land space and water — precious and dwindling commodities required for cattle.

But resources aren’t the only issue. This increase in agricultural production will exacerbate the effects of climate change by releasing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (agricultural activities currently contribute nearly one-tenth of the country’s greenhouse emissions). What’s more, animal waste releases ammonia, a pollutant that can affect soil and water quality.

armstrong-cricket-farm

A bin full of frozen insects from Armstrong Cricket Farm in Glennville, Georgia. Photo by Aaron Dossey

Yet this seemingly large food security problem may have a bite-sized solution: insects.

In a 2013 report, the FAO suggested our current farming and food production practices are unsustainable — but that edible insects are a viable, untapped resource that could help meet the food and water demands of the world’s ever-expanding population. And it’s really no wonder: Insects are highly nutritious, and also far more environmentally friendly to raise than conventional livestock. Compared with cows, pigs, or chickens, crickets require a fraction of the land, water, and food, and produce less greenhouse gases and ammonia.

Knowing this, multiple farms dedicated to rearing crickets for human consumption have sprung up in recent years. Insects from these farms are served up whole at local farmer’s markets or sold to companies that turn them into fine powders, which can be added to recipes for an easy protein and nutrition boost. Numerous startups have taken those powders and put them into everything from nutrition bars to chips and cookies, pastas and sauces.

Despite the potential to become the so-called “food of the future,” edible insects are still confined to a niche market in the United States.

“We are right on schedule with where the industry should be at this point,” says Kevin Bachhuber, CEO and founder of Ohio’s Big Cricket Farms, which, in 2014, became the first insect farm in the country to raise crickets exclusively for human consumption. “I think it will take 10, 20, or even 30 years to develop edible insects into a full-fledged market.”

Experts agree edible insects will someday shift gears from fad to mainstream, as Bachhuber believes. But it’s a long road, and proponents will need to hurdle significant obstacles along the way.

The Case for Insects

For edible insects to catch on in the U.S., the masses must first get over the “ick factor,” which Bachhuber says isn’t as big of a problem as it was just a few years ago. It’s important to remember that people from other countries don’t necessarily share this knee-jerk reaction. In fact, the FAO estimates that 2 billion people consume insects regularly, and some research suggests that number may be up to three times higher (about 80 percent of Earth’s population).

The practice of entomophagy (eating insects) is most common in the tropics, where insects are bountiful throughout the year due to warm temperatures, says Julie Lesnik, an anthropologist at Wayne State University in Michigan who studies entomophagy. Higher latitude areas like much of Europe don’t have constant insect exposure that would allow widespread entomophagy to take root, which may have prevented it from developing in North America.

cricket-pasta

When Christopher Columbus first came to the New World, he encountered indigenous peoples who ate bugs, a behavior described as being “como bestias” (like beasts) because the crew had only seen it before in animals. “I really think we haven’t overcome that,” Lesnik says.

Non-profit organizations have recently launched education-based programs to change this lingering public perception and promote the many benefits of edible insects.

Proponents point out that certain bugs have protein levels comparable to conventional meat, and insect protein contains all eight essential amino acids, making it nutritionally superior to plant-based protein. Though each of the 2,000 species of edible insects has its own specific nutritional profile, they’re all generally a good source of carbohydrates, lipids (in particular, mealworms have a composition of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids comparable to fish) and vitamins and minerals including calcium, iron, and zinc.

Entomophagy may also be an attractive option for those who are hoping to lose weight by counting calories. The FAO notes that raw adult yellow mealworms have about 140 calories per 100 grams — roughly 100 fewer calories than 80 percent lean ground beef.

From an environmental standpoint, insects require relatively little feed to produce edible meat. Crickets, for instance, are 12 times more efficient than cattle in converting feed to edible meat, at least four times more efficient than pigs, and twice as efficient as chickens, according to the FAO. And unlike other farmed animals, crickets are raised in compact, multi-story farms with comparatively little water, and are “slaughtered” humanely through a freezing process.

2017-jan-19_aaron_dossey“I think the biggest selling point of insects is their efficiency,” says biochemist and molecular biologist Aaron Dossey, who’s also the founder of All Things Bugs, a research and manufacturing company that produces Griopro cricket powder. “They’re also raised with no antibiotics or steroids, so they’re attractive for the health-conscious.”

But educating people about the health and environmental benefits of eating insects may not be enough.

“In the history of humanity, nobody has ever bought something because of its benefits,” Bachhuber jokes. Lesnik agrees this approach will only gain a niche market and suggests that people need to see insects as something delicious, adding that this will require insects to become more widely available in restaurants.

In High Demand

Restaurants are only part of the solution to making edible insects mainstream. Large food manufacturing companies need to start putting insect-derived ingredients into their products and on the shelves of grocery stores, says Dossey, who co-edited a 2016 manual for building the edible insect industry. So far, edible insects have only caught on among a small (but growing) number of startups, he adds. But Bachhuber also points out that Woodland Foods, a large distributor of dried food products, recently began selling a line of edible insects, which includes crickets, silkworm pupae, and giant water bugs, among others.

The slow adoption by food manufacturers also largely stems from regulation (or lack thereof).

Edible insects fall under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which also oversees fish and game. The FDA doesn’t currently have a certification process for edible insects, though suppliers must meet certain conditions to sell their products. For example, the insects must be clean and free of toxins, handled in sanitary conditions, and raised specifically for human consumption.

aaron-dossey-cricket-farmer

Cricket farmer Aaron Dossey packs up more than 2,000 pounds of edible insects for delivery. Photo by Aaron Dossey.

Cricket farmer Aaron Dossey packs up more than 2,000 pounds of edible insects for delivery. Aaron Dossey

The FDA also advises that edible insect products be labeled as a potential allergen, as current research suggests people with shellfish allergies may experience reactions to insects. In terms of safety, Dossey points out, insects raised at clean indoor farms have generally been found to be free of common pathogens that plague the meat industry, such as E. coli, staph and listeria, though research is ongoing.

Interestingly, insect distributors don’t have to — and, in actuality, can’t — go through the process to get their products listed as “Generally Recognized as Safe” by the FDA. Without this seal of approval, mainstream food companies are hesitant to buy in to cricket powder and other insect products.

“It’s holding us back,” Dossey says. “Not only would them buying the powder help us scale up our production and get the cost down, but it would also add a tremendous amount of legitimacy to the industry.”

A Legitimate Choice

Increased demand for edible insects may allow more funds and resources to be devoted towards innovation, which could further reduce costs and provide the industry with a stronger foothold in the food market. Given that labor and feed currently drive insect farming costs (which are passed on to manufacturers and consumers), the industry could use improved, cheaper feed and a more mechanized process for feeding, watering, and harvesting the crickets, Dossey says, adding that his company is actively researching these areas.

Bachhuber, who now focuses on consulting cricket farmers, agrees there’s room to grow in processing techniques, but cautions letting things get out of control. Techniques that remove people from having a fundamental connection to their livestock may cause farmers to accept less humane practices, he suggests, pointing to certain caged-farming techniques currently used in factory farming.

Much of the nascent edible insect industry today focuses on crickets — a kind of gateway insect positively associated with things like Disney’s Jiminy Cricket and good luck — but a full-fledged market will likely include numerous other options, such as mealworms, palm weevil larvae, and red weaver ants, which Bachhuber says make great cheesy omelets.

“I see the potential for a mindboggling variety,” he adds.

Of course, people staunchly against the idea of eating any insect don’t have to try it, Lesnik says. But she would ask them one favor: “If they would so kindly let their children make their own decisions about it, because they’re the ones who will be running out of food and water. It’s too late for us but let them grow up in a world where this is available.”

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