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Beyond the cringe: People are cashing in on cicada invasion

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While residents up and down the East Coast are cringing at the onset of the cicada invasion, a few savvy entrepreneurs and businesses are coming up with creative ways to celebrate — and profit from — the rare mass reappearance of the noisy bugs, hawking everything from themed jewelry to teriyaki-grilled cicadas. Fishermen are anticipating a giant delivery of free bait, while pet exterminators say the cicadas may make the rat-catching business a little more lucrative this fall.

Jewelry designer Christine Domanic sells homemade jewelry on her online Etsy shop and says sales of her cicada earrings have doubled since the latest brood emerged this year. Sales of her cicada-themed rings, brooches and necklaces also have spiked.

"My cicada earrings have always been very popular. They are a symbol of good luck and many of my customers give them as gifts," Ms. Domanic said.

The Hudson, N.Y.-based designer is inspired by nature and often uses insects, birds and animals in her designs. She is working on a handbag line that will feature cicada hardware and zipper pulls.

Though the cicada emergence can help the jewelry business, it doesn't exactly qualify as Christmas for insect exterminator companies, which may come as a surprise. A spokesperson for Lynchburg, Va.-based Dodson Bros. Exterminating Co. said "no one" offers cicada services, in part because the bugs visit so infrequently.

"They're seasonal," said a spokesperson for American Pest Control, based in Athens, Ga. "They run their course and then they're gone."

Cicadas are also unreliable: The current brood, which has been patiently waiting underground since 1996, is not expected to peak in the Middle Atlantic region until the middle of this month, and some entomologists are predicting that the District and its heavily populated suburbs will not see nearly the infestation this year that some had been forecasting.

CroppMetcalfe marketing supervisor Eric Tessel said the Fairfax-based contractor, which includes a pest-control division, does not treat cicadas because they exit from the ground and lay eggs high up in the trees where they cannot be reached with a spray. However, they expect to see an indirect increase in business through a significant increase in rodent calls in the coming months.

"Rodents tend to eat cicadas because they're so much protein. Later on in the year, you'll see more and bigger rodents," Mr. Tessel said. "When rodent season comes around, we expect it to be busier because of all the cicadas that have come out."

A taste of cicada cuisine

The cicadas also offer more options for the culinary arts. Although the thought of eating insects may be cringeworthy, some cicada aficionados are encouraging people to accept insects as part of a normal diet.

"They're Atkins-friendly," Gene Kritsky said with a laugh, pointing to the gluten-free, high-protein, low-fat and vitamin-packed nutritional composition of the average cicada. "People think nothing about eating shrimp or paying a lot of money for other arthropod-based foods. Shrimp are like the cockroaches of the sea. And we eat honey — that's bee barf."

Miya's Sushi, a restaurant based in New Haven, Conn., has earned a reputation for its healthy and environmentally friendly dishes. Owner and head chef Bun Lai created cicada recipes this year for those very reasons.

"Cicadas, just like many insects, are tasty and nutritious. They are much healthier than steak or farmed fish," said the James Beard Foundation Award-nominated chef. "There are no antibiotics used in their production. There's no need to use fresh water to produce [them] in a world where fresh water is a diminishing resource. And there's no [need] for grain-based feeds, and so on."

Mr. Lai also pointed to the high levels of greenhouse gas emissions that are created by raising livestock such as cows and chickens. The point of serving insects, he said, is not for business gain or sensationalism. He continues to turn down every requested TV interview.

"We're not just goofing around, [eating] insects like a frat boy. I'm trying to rethink the way we should be eating," Mr. Lai said. "People are grossed out by the idea of eating cicadas, but three-quarters of the world eats insects and understands they're a tasty food and that they're environmentally friendly."

One of Mr. Lai's recipes involves marinating cicadas in lime juice, salt, chili peppers, shiitake mushrooms, seaweed and sesame before smoking and dehydrating them.

"It's a big hit with kids," Mr. Lai said of the recipe, called "The Metal Electronic Microscope." Other recipes include skewered cicadas grilled with a spicy fruit teriyaki sauce and bread that uses flour made from dehydrated and ground cicadas.

Shying away from the real thing

Most Washington-area restaurants seem to shy away from putting actual insects on their menu, opting instead for cicada-themed items. The Dairy Godmother, a frozen custard shop in Alexandria, offered a tribute to the cicadas with its recent flavor of the day: "Cicada Crunch." It consisted of chocolate custard ("because they're brown"), Nestle's Crunch pieces, Rice Krispies, orange sprinkles (to mimic the signature orange veins on the cicada's wings) and chopped up red licorice whips, a nod to the bug's red eyes.

"Some people came in and were kind of [upset] that [we didn't put in] real cicadas. They were like, 'foodies,'" said owner Liz Davis, using air quotes to describe her particularly annoyed customers.

In 2004, when Brood X cicadas visited the D.C. area, the Dairy Godmother attracted a large crowd and more business than usual when it hosted a cicada-themed day. Large foam cicadas hung from the ceiling and customers attempted to guess how many cicada exoskeletons there were in a jar.

"It's a common experience for everyone locally, kind of like how everybody watches the Super Bowl at the same time," she said. "I think that's the main important thing about things like the cicadas. The cicadas coming out — it's like a secular holiday."

Many children had a fun time pretending to eat real bugs, she said. One family of regular Dairy Godmother customers made a special trip out that day for the Cicada Crunch. The parents had told their 5-year-old twin boys that the custard had real bugs in it, which didn't deter them.

"I like it, because it's crunchy," said Jack. His twin brother, Tom, with a chocolate custard-smeared chin, declared he wasn't afraid of eating bugs.

The Ritz-Carlton hotel is offering a "Cicada Soiree" cocktail made with Grey Goose L'Orange vodka, Blue Curacao and pineapple juice. The cocktail is garnished with a chocolate topper with a cicada design and real gold glitter.

"We don't get to make a lot of them," said bartender Melissa Maldonado, noting that not many people seem to know about the drink.

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