Red eyed seventeen year cicada


It’s not happening here. I wish it were but it’s not. We who live in Southeast Georgia won’t be seeing or hearing a thing. However, if you or family members live in most of the rest of the eastern United States (Delaware, north Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Washington D.C.), there will be the opportunity to see a very unique event taking place. Billions of large Brood X cicadas are emerging from beneath the ground beginning this month and continuing through early June. Their emergence is dependent on the right soil temperature. It’s a garden experience to remember. And the noise made by males attracting females is something so cacophonous that one never forgets it. At 100 decibels, the sound is some of the loudest in the insect world. I was quite surprised to read that the noise can cause permanent hearing loss in humans should the cicadas be at close range.

I remember the noise. I grew up in Baton Rouge, La., where the Brood XXll cicadas emerge every 13 years. The last emergence was 2014, so if I did my math right, I was there to experience this phenomenon back in the year 1962. We young’uns watched spellbound as great numbers of these large insects crawled out of the earth. The nymphs would undergo one final molt before becoming adults. In the dark of the night, they literally split their exoskeletons in half down the middle of the back, crawling out as white, defenseless adults. The vulnerability lasts only 30 minutes or so before the carapace hardens and new wings are pumped full of blood. Over the next four to five weeks, we collected the lifeless cast-off exoskeletons (shed skin known as exuviae) from the trunks of trees in the yard. Then we went in search of the adults, which were easy hear, more difficult to find and fun to catch. Holding the wings down against their bodies, they were quite defenseless. We’d release them on unsuspecting friends, in their hair, on their clothes and if we could, on an arm or leg. One thing I remember the most is how those bugs (with their thick claws on their legs) could cling on a rapidly moving body!

Cicadas are large insects and arthropods (having an exoskeleton), one to two inches in length, with prominent wide set eyes on the sides of the head and short antennae that protrude between the eyes. The mouthparts form a long, sharp rostrum (beak) that they insert into a plant to feed off the sap. They do not bite. Two pairs of powerful wings are attached to the thorax (middle section of the body between head and abdomen). Cicada emergence from the ground is for mating. Females can mate many times during the length of their emergence and lay up to 600 eggs. After mating, the females will cut slits into the stems of small trees in order to lay the eggs. When the eggs hatch, the new nymphs will drop to the ground where they will burrow in up to 8 feet deep and remain most of their lives feeding on xylem sap from the tree roots.

Of the 3,000 species of cicadas in the world, 150 reside in the United States. Cicadas are classified as periodical or annual. Annual cicadas can be found around the world. In North America, they appear every summer and many folks are familiar with them. The term annual refers to the fact that species members reappear annually, not that they live for only one year. The life cycle is usually 2 to 5 years but can continue to 9 years. One species is known as the dog-day cicada because it emerges in the hot and sultry “dog days” of August. The loud buzzing calls are common sounds around many states including Georgia. Unlike periodical cicadas, these emergences above ground are not synchronized and are not as impactful in insect numbers or noise.

Periodical cicadas live primarily in the eastern and central U.S. They are further divided into 13-year and 17-year cicadas. There are just three broods of 13-year cicadas. There are 12 different broods in the 17-year cicada group, each emerging on a different time schedule and in different geographic locations. Brood X, the one emerging this year, is by far the most widely distributed of the 17-year cicadas. The adults emerge from the last nymph instar with red eyes, making them quite striking in appearance. If you are lucky to witness their emergence, it will be forever in your memory. I hope to be in Ohio in early May when they are expected to emerge there.

Cicadas are common food for birds, bats, spiders and praying mantis. During mass emergences, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals will supplement their normal diets with them. Cicadas, like other edible insects, are a source of nutrition for humans. They are eaten in various countries, including China. Nymphs are served deep-fried. The softer cicadas are found in the early morning hours after the last molt takes place. They can be eaten when the carapace is hardened but there will be more of a crunch when chewed. I read that cicadas are called “the shrimp of the land.” I had to research that statement and found that in the taxonomic classification of organisms, they are in the Kingdom of Animalia, the Phylum Arthropoda (which includes shrimp, lobster and crawdads), the Class Insecta, the Order Hemiptera, the Family Cicadidae, the Genus Cicada. So, for seafood lovers, this just may be a new item for your menu! I think this gardener of the land will pass.