On a few warm, spring nights in 2021, billions of large, brown “creepy looking” bugs will push up from the ground throughout parts of the Northeastern and Midwestern United States. These insects are members of Brood X (pronounced Brood Ten) -- the largest of the 15 broods of periodical cicadas found in the United States. But what makes this event even more unique is the fact that it happens only once every seventeen years, and that the presence of these cicadas will produce one of the most memorable sounds of the season.
Before they come to the surface of the soil, cicadas will have spent sixteen years below ground sucking sap from tree roots. But in year seventeen, these subterranean creatures travel up to the surface of the soil, climb a nearby tree, and split their backs open allowing a ghost-white adult to slowly emerge. Then, after a few hours, the white” newborn” becomes a fully developed adult with a big, dark body, orange-red eyes and large, clear wings.
Once they are ready, adult cicadas will leave their brown shells behind, and fly into the trees where the males will begin calling for a mate – and what a call it is. Male cicadas rapidly vibrate a pair of ribbed membranes that sit on either side of their abdomens, and with hordes of them doing this at the same time, the buzzing sound is roughly as loud (100 decibels) as that of a chain saw or a roaring motorcycle heard from a few feet away.
Fortunately, these calls are made mostly during the daytime hours, so they are not likely to keep you awake at night. Cicadas may continue to call on especially hot nights or if there is a bright light nearby, but the intensity of those calls will be greatly reduced.
The females of the species respond to the loud calls of the males with a single click of their wings. You can imitate this call by snapping your fingers once near a male cicada, which will cause the insect to move towards your hand. The male will make its buzzing sound as it approaches, and if you snap your fingers again each time it stops, it will continue to move toward your hand. Keep doing this and you can lure it in quite close. Then, after it buzzes again, snap your fingers behind it, and it will turn around and move towards you again.
Cicadas won’t bite you or your pets and they are not poisonous if eaten, so there really is no reason to kill them unless you want to eat them yourself. You won’t be alone in this. Birds, squirrels, bats, wasps and a dozen other creatures take advantage of this abundance, and there are numerous recipes on the Internet describing their preparation if you are interested in trying them out. I know they aren’t pretty, but, then again, neither are shrimp or lobsters.
You should be aware of the fact that copperheads (venomous snakes found in most of the states where Brood X cicadas are going to emerge this year) are quite fond of eating the newly emerged insects and may be more likely than usual to cross your path as they hunt for them in the dark. So be extra careful where you step when walking at night when the cicadas first appear.
After mating, the female cicada cuts numerous slits into the bark of a twig and deposits her eggs. She repeats this process until several hundred egg have been laid, which is the cause of the brown leafed or fallen branches that are the only destructive aspect of this monumental natural event. Then, 6 to 10 weeks later, the nymphs that have grown from the eggs, drop to the ground, and burrow into the soil where they will remain for the next 17 years.
As for all the noise. Adult cicadas die four to six weeks after the insects break through the surface of the soil, and we won’t hear them again until 2038. Think about how old you or your children will be when Brood X returns and what you might do between now and then. As with contemplating any of nature’s massive and prolonged cycles, it is both humbling and quite wonderous.