Q&A: Peg Beute, a senior naturalist at Ijams Nature Center and an organizer of its Cicada Festival

A senior naturalist at Ijams Nature Center, Peg Beute will be one of the leaders at its Cicada Festival family program Saturday, Aug. 25.

How many cicadas are around here?

We have between five and seven different species; it depends on the year. Every 17 years we have a huge population, dropping on people's cars and being crunched under people's feet. Not this year, but we always have some cicadas. Other species have shorter cycles; the larvae can be in the ground seven years, 10, maybe 13. This year in East Tennessee we have lots of seven-year-cycle cicadas.

Are any really big?

That's sort of relative. The biggest ones we see here, with wings included, are 3 to 5 inches.

Are the biggest ones also the loudest?

Not necessarily. They go through metamorphosis—start as eggs, then larvae. When they emerge from the larvae stage as adults, that's the sound you hear. The adults don't live that long, some species live only a couple of days, some a week or 10 days.

Is this the season to hear them?

Yes, you're hearing them in the trees, every day now, until frost.

Why are they making noise?

For a couple different reasons. It is part of their breathing cycle, the way they take air into the body. Part of it is wing vibration. And part of it is what some people call the cicada "love song." They are the loudest insect in the world, but only the males can make that sound. The female can respond, but just with her wings—it's visual. They also make an alarm sound, both genders, kind of like a little shrieking noise through the abdominal cavity.

What alarms cicadas?

Being touched. They're a big food source for birds and snakes, and even other insects that eat insects, like the praying mantis. They make the shrieking noise to warn other cicadas, though it's probably too late for them.

Are they kind of creepy?

Some bugs are kind of cool-looking I think, but not cicadas. They have big red eyes, and thin wings folded over dark bodies—this is what every monster bug in the movies was based on, the face of the cicada.

Can they hurt you?

They're totally harmless to people; no biting or stinging. They do eat crops, particularly in years where there are huge populations. But in our part of the world, East Tennessee, it's not the case where they ever ravage our crops.

What's this about fried cicadas at the event?

If I can catch enough, we will. I have to go out in the a.m., and they're on trees hanging low. They warm up as the day warms up, but they're pretty easy to catch in the cool mornings. I drop them into a paper bag and set them into the freezer, and they just go to sleep and then die. And then yes, I've been known to deep fry them—just batter them up, drop them in the deep fryer, and serve them with ranch or honey mustard. They taste just like fried squash.

Are you putting me on?

No, I have been known to make stuff up, but not this. Back during the last 17-year cycle when we had a lot, I fried up quite a few and we had a little tasting with the folks from Channel 10, so it's even been documented.

Do you worry about taking too many?

No, their populations are very strong, we don't have to worry about eating them.

And how is Metro Pulse contributor Rikki Hall involved?

He and our other senior naturalist, Stephen Lynn Bales, will lead some hikes that day to look for cicadas, while I'm busy battering and frying.

Pre-registration is required for the Cicada Festival ($7 members, $10 nonmembers), Saturday, Aug. 25, 1 p.m.-3 p.m., at 577-4717 x110.