Waiting is part of life, whether anxiously awaiting news regarding the birth in the family, waiting for a movie to start in the theater, or waiting for a pot of water to boil. But waiting on the return of the cicadas is a commitment of 17 years—and 2020 is the reward for that patience.
1. What are Cicadas?
In short, they are a winged insect that looks a little like a fly merged with a beetle. More precisely, Magicicadas are a genus of large insects from the Cicadidae family with over 3,000 species.
2. Why are They Newsworthy?
These creatures have one of the strangest lifestyles of any animal on earth, only appearing above ground every 13 or 17 years, depending on location and species. Their behavior is predictable, with each brood appearing in a regular sequence. This year’s emergence is dubbed Brood IX (or Brood 9) and has started to appear in areas of southwest Virginia, West Virginia, and parts of North Carolina.
When the insects come to town there is no denying the deafening sound, distinct to the species. Although it may appear the entire Brood is chattering at the same time, the sound is actually only made by the males, who have a membrane in the abdomen that vibrates to attract females.
Spending most of their time underground in nymph form, cicadas come out of their dwellings in order to mate. In a time when most of us are physical distancing in our homes due to COVID-19 pandemic, we can relate to what it must feel like to have some mobile freedom. But the emergence is a rebirth that leaves the cicada vulnerable.
First they burst out of the hard exoskeleton, exposing their soft bodies and wet wings that inhibit their ability to fly. During this time, many other creatures in the neighborhood have a feeding frenzy on the rare delicacy they likely only see once in a lifetime. Raccoons, turtles, and birds feed on the cicadas while they are vulnerable, but even with this multi-species feast the billions of cicadas have plenty of numbers in order to survive the buffet.
For those that survive the transition from nymph to flying adult, it becomes mating time. As the males buzz and the females swoon, the resulting act creates enormous quantities of eggs the females attach to small twigs. Once the eggs are laid, the adult cicadas die off—an untimely end following a brief bit of freedom.
4. The Cycle Continues
If left unharmed, the sacks of eggs mature on the trees until the nymphs once again fall to the ground. They then nestle into the soil about eight inches beneath the tree, feeding on the sap from tree roots for the next 17 years until it is their turn to flutter dangerously above ground, mate, and die.
Mature trees can handle the seasonal activity from the cicadas, but small, undeveloped trees can become stunted or even die as a result of the new pressures. For farmers, the attack can affect their crops, but with the knowledge of when they will arrive, they can avoid planting within one to two years before the event.
Overall, though, the damage comes from weakening the small trees by drinking the sap, so that is rarely enough to cause serious damage to a large number of trees. Many people associate cicadas with locusts, who are well-known for their ability to strip the land in their path. Cicadas, in contrast, offer no harm to gardens or structures.
6. No Danger to Humans
Although they may seem imposing as they blanket every building and tree in the area, and sound even more intimidating, cicadas are no threat to humans. They are not poisonous and do not have a stinger.
7. The Debris
With sheets of red eyed, black carcasses left behind, property owners might wonder what to do with the debris. Compost them! Their nutrients are valuable for your plants. The crispy husks the nymphs leave behind can also go in the compost pile.
If you’re looking for your own delicacy, you can eat cicadas. Search for a recipe that intrigues your palette. Coat with seasoned flour and cook, roast them like nuts, or toss them into a stir fry. It’s a taste you’ll only experience once every 17 years.