The quest for cicada pupae

As sudden early-season rain showers wipe away the blazing summer heat, baby cicadas would start shedding their skins. Attracted by the delicacy that is molting cicadas, insect hunters have found themselves venturing into distant woods at night collecting cicada pupae – a way for them to make some cash and also relive childhood memories in the process.
A cicada hunter at night (Photo: SGGP)
A cicada hunter at night (Photo: SGGP)

The search amidst the woods

Jolting up and down on a rickety motor scooter covered in red dust, we followed Dang Ngoc Thanh (26 years old, from Tan Hung town, the southern province of Binh Phuoc) and his team of cicada hunters into local fruit gardens, carrying some tools. The rain had just let up, so we were struggling to keep our scooters balanced while dashing through the slippery muddy trails.

Letting out a relieved sigh after making a hard turn, Thanh turned to face us: “Insects hunters would be flocking when summer breaks so we gotta take off early for those “loots”, but we’ll have to travel to remote spots or very damp gardens”.

It took us a long while combatting the mud under our wheels, but we finally made it to an old cashew range with no other humans in sight, and began our hunt for cicadas at nightfall.

Thanh and four others split into two groups, plastic bags in hands and flashlights attached to their heads. Bit-by-bit, the constantly sweeping flashlights began to reveal milky white molting cicadas.

Swiftly dropping a cicada into his plastic bag, Thanh explained: “Female cicadas usually lay eggs underneath tree barks or in between rocks. When the larvae emerge, they live underground for a while and then crawl up to cling to tree trunks above the ground; at this stage they are called pupae. Searching for these pupae is not simple; you have to be patient since they molt during very specific times, and we have to begin working at night or when dawn is near”.

Dang Nguyen Minh Tuan, one of the other hunters shouted from a tree: “This area have just been cleared, so we won’t find too many cicadas. Let’s pack up and move in deeper”.

He quickly jumped down to drop all the pupae he collected from the plastic bag into a large bucket of diluted salt water the group set down earlier, which he explained is to keep the pupae from turning brown after they die. As we watch this mid-forest search for cicadas, childhood memories suddenly swept through our minds, of our own adventures finding cicadas in the dead of nights twenty years ago.

At pass 11pm, a dense layer of fog had fallen over the cashew and coffee acres making the night even more ambient, and the pitter-patter of raindrops still reverberated here and there.

The group ventured further into the woods, the veil of night falling onto their shoulders, already soaked wet by the fog. Atop soaring tree lines in the distant, the shapes of drowsy wild roosters fade in and out, their wings ready to take flight at even the slightest sounds of the night.

In the midst of silence, the cicada’s signature summer chorus suddenly started to resonate, intertwined with the burbling of a stream from far across the hills. Our group got excited at the sight of cicada skins scattered all over the ground, and each person effortlessly collected one handful after another of the pupae that were swarming on tree branches.

Ignoring a cicada with fully grown wings, Tuan pointed out: “Pupa hunting seasons lasts only a week or two; afterwards the young ones would start turning into full-fledged bugs, and at that point people don’t eat them anymore”.

The search only ended with a 4 kilogram bucket filled to the brim with both water and pupae. This amount would sell for about VND1 million (US$42.67) on the market, a fair sum to be divided among the group.

Cicadas going uptown

According to the hunters, depending on market prices and demands, a 3-month cicada season would earn them about VND15 million ($640.06) to VND20 million ($853.42) which is 4 or 5 times the monthly amount from their day jobs.

A regular purchaser of molting cicadas, Nguyen Thanh Dong said that cicada pupae are considered a delicacy, and can be made into a variety of dishes, hence its rising popularity in recent years. As a result, casual cicada hunters gradually follow the line of work professionally. Some days he would collect about 50-70 kilograms of pupae, which he buys at a fluctuating VND170,000 ($7.25) to VND220,000 ($9.39). Dong said he is willing to purchase these insects in such large quantities, the reason being they can be sold to restaurants both online and locally, and even exported overseas.

As medical experts have stated, though not inherently poisonous, cicada pupae might be contaminated with fungus due to living underground for long periods of time. Truth be told, once something has found its way onto the dinner table, there can only be a rise in its appearance in street pubs.

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