I had to see them for myself.
Thousands and thousands of very loud bugs the size of my thumb with bright red eyes. They’ve spent 17 years of their youth underground to emerge as adults, en masse, for only 4-8 weeks. I didn’t want to miss the spectacle so I drove down to Washington, PA last Monday to see …
17-year cicadas (Magicicada sp.), unique to eastern North America, are so tasty to birds and mammals that they survive by emerging in overwhelming numbers on a prime-number cycle. There are 13 regional Broods with different cycles. This one, Brood V (i.e. 5), lives in parts of West Virginia, Ohio and the bottom left corner of Pennsylvania(*). (Click here for the list of all Broods and regions, and here for Pennsylvania by county.)
There are lots of cool facts about these bugs:
- In the spring of their 17th year the nymphs dig tunnels that stop just below the surface … and then they wait. The moment of their emergence depends on soil temperature and perhaps on their ability to hear each other making sounds that mean “I’m ready.” (read more here)
- They emerge at night and crawl up on trees, plants and walls to shed their exoskeletons and dry their wings. At this point they are very soft and tasty to predators.
- Sometimes their wings don’t unfurl properly as shown on the bug below.
- There are so many of them that later arrivals knock the old shells off to the ground.
- It takes about a week for their bodies to stiffen enough to make their distinctive call. When they’re ready the males congregate in trees and vibrate their tymbals to attract the females. Each bug is individually loud. Thousands of them are overwhelming. Here’s the sound from a cicada-filled tree. The audio sounds like a hiss but it’s actually bugs.
- After they mate the females rip a long slit in the bark of a twig and lay up to 600 eggs. Weeks later, the eggs hatch and the nymphs fall to the dirt where they burrow underground to live for 17 years.
- Later this summer you’ll know cicadas were here when you see brown leaves on branch tips.
For lots more information about cicadas, visit the Cicada Mania website or this Allegheny Front episode Everything You Need to Know About This Year’s Mass Cicada Emergence.
Magicicadas are weird and magical.
p.s. Watch this cool video of the cicadas’ life cycle, billed on Facebook as “Cicada Time-Lapse Video Will Make You Cry.”
(cicada photos and video by Kate St. John. photo of tree with brown tips from Wikimedia Commons)