The effects of wing–body interaction (WBI) on aerodynamic performance and vortex dynamics have been numerically investigated in the forward flight of cicadas. Flapping wing kinematics was reconstructed based on the output of a high-speed camera system. Following the reconstruction of cicada flight, three models, wing–body (WB), body-only (BD) and wings-only (WN), were then developed and evaluated using an immersed-boundary-method-based incompressible Navier–Stokes equations solver. Results have shown that due to WBIs, the WB model had a 18.7 % increase in total lift production compared with the lift generated in both the BD and WN models, and about 65 % of this enhancement was attributed to the body. This resulted from a dramatic improvement of body lift production from 2 % to 11.6 % of the total lift produced by the wing–body system. Further analysis of the associated near-field and far-field vortex structures has shown that this lift enhancement was attributed to the formation of two distinct vortices shed from the thorax and the posterior of the insect, respectively, and their interactions with the flapping wings. Simulations are also used to examine the new lift enhancement mechanism over a range of minimum wing–body distances, reduced frequencies and body inclination angles. This work provides a new physical insight into the understanding of the body-involved lift-enhancement mechanism in insect forward flight.