They’ll be here soon.
So it might be a good idea to go outside and memorize what relative quiet sounds like.
The Magicicadas are coming. By the billions. Like corpses in a horror movie, they will soon dig themselves from the ground where they have been preparing themselves for the last 17 years. When they have emerged – beginning in about the middle of May this year – they will be inescapable.
They’re flat-black creatures, maybe an inch and a half long, with transparent orange wings and red, beady eyes. The good news is that they’re harmless, even beneficial. It may not always be easy to remember that.
Magicicada is the genus of the many species of periodic cicadas. Apparently fond of prime numbers, they appear every 13 – or in the case of this year’s batch, 17 – years. But they don’t come out the same year everyplace. There are 14 geographically dispersed “broods” that appear in varying years. Ours is Brood V, and it last made itself know in 1999. That year the population was huge, and it’s expected to be even bigger this year.
(Even the cicada we see and hear every year spends, entomologists believe, five years underground before emerging to make noise to draw a mate, mate, lay eggs, and fall dead to the ground. But some emerge every year, so they’re not “periodic.”)
The arrival of the 17-year cicadas, called an “emergence,” will draw the nation’s leading cicada experts to our area. It is like Christmas to them. Among those experts are Dr. John Cooley of the University of Connecticut, and Dr. Gene Kritsky of Mount St. Joseph University (in Cincinnati), who literally wrote the book on cicadas in Ohio (“In Ohio's Backyard: Periodical Cicadas,” a new edition of which was published this month).
So when does it all begin?
“When the soil reaches 64 degrees Fahrenheit, and especially after you have a nice, soaking rain, that really kicks them out of the ground,” said Kritsky in a recent interview. “That really pressures them. Back in 1999, that was the second half of May. Come April 30 we’ll be able to look at the meteorological data and predict with a 90 percent accuracy plus or minus 48 hours what day in May they’ll actually emerge.”
“I was at Tar Hollow [State Park, near Laurelville] in 1999, and it was a mid-May to June kind of thing,” said Cooley. “You’ll know. They won’t slip under your radar.” Cicadas are noisy. When periodic cicadas emerge, they are very noisy.
It turns out that there are three species of periodic cicadas we’ll see this year. They make different sounds but unless one knows what to look for, they appear much the same. There will be many of them.
“They all come up together,” said Cooley. “They all have this predator satiation strategy where they come out in massive numbers, where the risk to an individual cicada is practically zero, because there are so many cicadas and the predators can just eat so many.
“It isn’t worth their effort to do anything else to avoid predators. It’s a strategy that works.”
“Many” is a relative term. How many cicadas will there be?
“Usually we measure it by square meter or square yard,” said Kritsky. “I would say that in 1999, in places like Strouds Run (State Park) and some of the areas around Athens proper, it was not uncommon to find up to 200 per square yard.”
Brood V’s range covers the eastern half of Ohio and stretches down to Virginia, taking in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania. Where does Athens County fit in?
“Back in 1999 we had an incredible emergence of cicadas in Athens County, particularly at Strouds Run Park,” said Kritsky. “It was very loud, it was very easy to go out there and collect as well as get good sound recordings. Stewart (in eastern Athens County) had a big population. I collected good numbers of cicadas in Athens proper. Glouster, Millfield, Nelsonville, most of the southern part of the county, too.”
How does one predict the size of the current emergence?
“How large was it last time?” said Cooley. “That’s the best predictor.”
The signs of the oncoming horde may already be visible in some places, Kritsky said.
“People will begin to notice the chimneys that occur. Under their decks or in covered areas, they’ll notice what look like little crayfish chimneys. But that’s the cicada nymphs building these extensions to their tunnels to get them above where rainwater can flood them.”
Since 1999, this year’s batch has lived beneath the soil, feeding on tree roots and growing. They molt as they grow. Once they resurface, they’ll stick around for about six weeks. Kritsky described what emerged cicadas do for a living:
“They’ll emerge in mid- to late-May. Two or three days later you’ll start hearing the chorusing by the males – the females cannot make a sound but they do flick their wings in response to a male, so the males will start walking toward her – after they mate, a couple days later the female will start laying her eggs. She lays about 500 eggs. She’ll keep going at it until she’s exhausted her supply. And then she and the males will die.
“And you’ll start seeing large numbers of them collect at the base of trees. That will occur in mid to late June, you’ll start seeing those accumulations, and then if we have a good rain and the hot temperatures in June, that will start to smell. If the cicadas start to come out by the 15th of May, they’ll all be gone by the 30th of June.”
The eggs are typically laid in last year’s new growth of trees. It can cause some damage, but nothing permanent and in fact fruit and other trees typically have better harvests the years after a cicada emergence, Kritsky said.
“They’re quite beneficial for the whole ecosystem,” he added. “The holes they leave behind when they emerge from the ground is natural aeration. When they emerge, they’re food for all sorts of animals – in 1999, the (Ohio) Division of Wildlife reported that the average weight of male turkeys from eastern Ohio was higher than it was the previous year.”
Ah, yes, animals eating them. One hears all sorts of stories about dogs eating so many that it does them harm.
“People know their own pets,” said Kritsky. “Mostly with dogs, if they eat too many it can lead to a bowel obstruction, but rarely. Usually what happens is they get sick of eating them first.” He talked about a Labrador retriever he observed during the emergence of a different brood in 1991. At first, the dog was playfully snatching the cicadas out of the air as they flew by. “When I saw the dog again 48 hours later, it was on the porch, its head down, and cicadas were actually landing on it.” But no permanent harm was done.
Once the cicadas have laid their eggs and died, their offspring begin the cycle anew.
“The eggs will hatch about six to eight weeks after they’ve been laid,” said Kritsky. “You can actually see these little wispy things, looks like pollen drifting out of the trees. That’s the nymphs, falling to the ground. They quickly find a crack in the soil around a blade of grass or whatever, and dig down to get in the soil, because they’re vulnerable to ants and beetles and even birds. By Jan. 1, they’ll be 8 to 12 inches below the surface, beneath the trees, sucking on a tree root.”
Meanwhile, the trees having been vacated by July 1, the regular cicadas that we see every year will emerge, and we’ll soon hear their chorus. It will be a noisy summer.
But for the sound, which some may find annoying, no harm will be done, said Kritsky.
“They don’t bite, they don’t sting, they won’t carry away your children. They don’t carry disease. Some people claim they have had a cicada try to feed on them, but I’m not convinced that that’s actually happened.”
This could happen to you!
It’s afternoon in late May or early June, and you’ve noticed that the lawn is getting a little shaggy at the edges. Might be a nice time to do something about it.
So you fire up the string trimmer and something alarming happens: Within a very few minutes, the trimmer – and you – are covered head-to-toe by dozens, maybe hundreds, of black-and-orange cicadas.
You think they’re biting you, but they’re not – those are their sharp but harmless claws, hanging on.
Is this just an urban legend?
“That certainly does happen,” says Dr. Gene Kritsky. “Briggs & Stratton weed whackers and certain kinds of lawn mowers vibrate at the same sound as a chorusing sound. And that causes other males and females to fly toward that sound, because they think that it’s a congregation of other cicadas for possible mating.”
As a number of YouTube videos demonstrate, the phenomenon is not limited to weed whackers and lawn mowers, either. It’s been shown to happen with electric saws, drills and angle grinders.
This year we’ll find out if cicadas are drawn to hobby drone aircraft. Those didn’t exist when the periodic cicadas last emerged, in 1999.
Emergence brings educational opportunities
Parents and other interested persons: why let this year’s periodic cicada emergence go to waste? There are lots of resources available to make it all an insect festival!
First, there’s Dr. John Cooley’s website, Magicicada.org. It has lots of information and most especially the map, where you’re encouraged to report cicada sightings.
Dr. Gene Kritsky of Mount St. Joseph University also has a website that’s full of information and fun for kids, including a printable sheet that can be folded into an origami cicada, a cicada that can be colored, a plan for getting oral histories of earlier cicada emergences, and much more. It’s at http://faculty.msj.edu/kritskg/cicada/Site/Cicada_home.html.
They may be tasty, but don’t eat the cicadas
Over the years, indigenous peoples and others have cooked and eaten cicadas – typically fried – and the internet is full of recipes. But it’s not a good idea.
“I don’t eat them, and I’ll tell you a couple of reasons why,” said Dr. John Cooley. “One, they have enough problems. But the other – there’s a whole body of literature about the mercury. You just don’t know whether you’re downwind of a coal-fired power plant. If you are, you’re talking about mercury. And it may be a byproduct of some paper mills.”
Dr. Gene Kritsky agrees.
“There is evidence that they pick up mercury in the soil,” he said. “There was a project here at the University of Cincinnati looking at mercury levels in cicadas. I’ve tried cicadas. I don’t encourage eating them – it’s more like a prank sort of thing. Being in the soil, they will accumulate that mercury into their tissues. You can measure it in the nymphal tissues of cicadas.”
Mercury is very bad for you.