The line to the snack table snakes around the large southern red oak trees and the ponderosa pines, their spring leaves an adolescent green. The hundreds of people gathered are not waiting to purchase popcorn or cotton candy. No, instead they are in line for a once-in-17-years' delicacy: cicadas.
Welcome to the Magicicada Festival, held Memorial Day weekend at the West Virginia University Arboretum, a 90-acre expanse of forest nestled along the banks of the Monongahela River. It's here where the conversation of the crowd is drowned out only by the constant murmurings of the cicadas, in whose honor this festival is being held.
The Rising Creek Bakery, located just across the border in Western Pennsylvania, has brought more than a hundred Cicada Crunch Chocolate Chip Cookies and a fresh batch of cicada-infused butterscotch ice cream to the event. The treats are gobbled up within the first 30 minutes, leaving latecomers to instead munch on a homemade trail mix of blueberries, peanuts, and — yes — fried cicadas. Call it the ultimate in seasonal dining.
"At first I thought maybe the cookies were a mistake," Rising Creek's proprietor and self-proclaimed pot washer Jenny Bardwell tells MNN. "At first, people's reactions were 'Ew, that's disgusting! I'm not going to eat there anymore.' But it kind of flips people out. People are ready to check out something that's kind of new and interesting."
And now, both here and at her bakery in Mount Morris, Pa., she can't keep them in stock. "People want a dozen cookies or so at a time," she says. "I think they want to take them to graduation parties and be the talk of the party." (Watch how the cookies are prepared in the video below.)
She's baking with the Brood Five, the particular breed that has emerged in this part of Appalachia after spending 17 years underground. The last time they were out swarming was 1999, when Bill Clinton was president and Christina Aguilera's "Genie in the Bottle" topped the music charts. To help set the mood, festival organizers have brought along 1990s-era memorabilia.
At a nearby table, Zach Fowler, a biology professor at WVU and director of the arboretum, shows kids how to make cicada origami. Another table has markers and cicada coloring books for the younger attendees. Kids run around with red balloons on their head, mimicking the bulbous eyes of the cicada.
Many of those in attendance flock to a table with dozens of dead cicadas on it, alongside intricate drawings of the three species of cicadas in Brood Five.
Kristyn Lizbinski, a PhD student studying the cicada brain as part of her thesis project, hands cicada carcasses to people to show them the differences — one is larger than the other, another possesses a distinct orange pattern. She can even tell you which ones are female.
The 25-year-old grew up just outside Scranton, Pa., in a small town called Drums where she was encouraged by her parents to play in nature. "I was that outdoorsy kid," she says.
Lizbinski regales the crowd with a story about a scientist at University of California, Davis, who was able to speed up the blossoming of a tree and convinced a set of cicadas that it was time to come out a year earlier than they had planned. “They tricked the cicadas into thinking it was time to emerge," she explains. "The takeaway from that is that the cicadas are somehow counting the tree cycles.”
As for her own cicada research, she's racing against time. This historic batch of cicadas will be gone by July and won't return until Lizbinski is in her 40s. "I will be sad to see them go. We're kind of flying by the seat of our pants collecting them. And if a technique doesn't work, we're out of luck because we can't wait another month to do it."
At WVU, her project fits right at home alongside that of a professor in the biology department who trains moths to sniff out bombs at airports. "If you told me when I was 15 that I'd be getting a PhD in insect neurobiology, I probably would've laughed." She pauses, and then adds, “I’m afraid of spiders, so it’s kind of ironic.”