By Jana Curry
Any day now, Washington D.C. will be invaded by billions of cicadas. Scientists believe that cicadas will outnumber humans, living on the East Coast, 600 to 1, maybe more.
Many people are confused by the fact that cicadas are coming back so soon after their most recent appearance in 2004, expecting to see those infamous 2-inch bulging red eyed flying bugs in the year 2021. The answer to that assumption is that many people don’t realize that there are 15 different broods of cicadas in the U.S., in which at least 5 of those 15 affect the DC area, all on different life cycles of either 13 or 17 years. This year Brood II will affect the East coast from North Carolina to Connecticut.
Since their last presence in 1996, Brood II has been a few feet underground sucking on tree roots. They drink up a low-protein tree fluid called xylum, which isn’t essential to the tree. They will only emerge when the ground temperature has reached 64 degrees. Entomologist, scientists who study insects, believe that the cicadas will dig their way up in late May and in June in the Washington area.
While the cicadas stay underground, they aren’t asleep. They go through different growth stages and molt four times before they ever get to the surface. Cicadas first come out as nymphs, which are wingless and silent juveniles. Above ground, they climb on to trees and molt one last time leaving behind a crusty brown shell. Cicadas grow another half inch and become adult winged cicadas.
Once the cicadas emerge they will be flying around for about four to six weeks. The cicada life cycle is seen to be very odd and a mystery to many entomologist. Some believe the lifecycle of 13 or 17 years is to disrupt predators who cannot adapt to the insect. In some cases, a predator will only see the insect once in their lifetime. Because of their wit, cicadas are some of the world’s longest-lived insects.
During their time above ground, cicadas are here for just 4 simple things. Once the nymphs shed their skin, they fly, sing, mate, and die.
Cicadas are infamous for their boisterous singing. The sound organ in cicadas are tymbals, drum like structures on the abdomen of the insect. In most species only males have these organs. They are used to call females or warn a nearby predator. Females can make sounds but they flick their wings to answer mating calls.
According to Russ Horton, an entomologist from HomeTeam Pest Defense, cicadas can produce sounds up to 120 decibels, comparable to a loud rock concert. Their singing to find mates can be very loud when hundreds or thousands sing together at the same time. In 2004, Gene Kritsky, an entomologist and cicada expert at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, measured cicadas at 94 decibels, saying it was so loud “you don’t hear planes flying overhead.”
While males are the first to emerge, they fly around to find tree branches to perch on and sing, individually or in a chorus, to call for the females to come and mate. Females can lay 600 or so eggs on tips of tree branches, which fall to the ground producing new nymphs who burrow back into the ground to restart the cycle. Those who mate die and litter their bodies on the ground.
This year’s invasion of Brood II is believed to be one of the bigger emergencies of cicadas. Several experts say they really don’t have a handle of how many cicadas are underground but 30 billion seems like a good estimate. At the Smithsonian Institute, researcher Gary Hevel thinks it may be more like 1 trillion. Mike Raupp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland, states, “There will be some places where it’s wall to wall cicadas.”
Past cicada invasions have seen as many as 1.5 million bugs per acre. Chris Simmons of the University of Connecticut suggests that most places along the East Coast won’t be so swamped, and some places, especially in cities, may not even see a single cicada. Simmons also states that cicadas can also live beneath the metro areas of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.
Although cicadas frighten many people, some people are ecstatic that they are coming. Scientists and cicada fans travel to see these fascinating bugs. There are ordinary cicadas that come out every year around the world, but these are different. They’re called “magicicadas”, as in magic, and are red-eyed. And these “magicicadas” are seen only in the eastern half of the United States, nowhere else in the world.
Entomologists aren’t only excited over this year’s emergence for science reasons. Some insist that cicadas make a delicious protein-rich meal.
Cicadas are considered a delicacy in some parts of the world, primarily in Southeast Asia. Cicadas are commonly sautéed or fried. Gaye Williams, an entomologist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture in Annapolis, affirmed, “Cicadas are the truffles of the insect world. They can also be eaten covered in chocolate, roasted, marinated or pickled.”
Kritsky explains that cicadas are high in protein, low fat, and have no carbs. They are quite nutritious and have a good set of vitamins. Isa Betancourt, an entomologist at Drexel University, told NBC the bugs were a delicacy, calling them “shrimp of the land.” A cookbook put together by the University of Maryland Cicadamaniacs offers recipes from cicada dumplings to banana cicada bread.
Even though the thought of being outnumbered by cicadas can be scary, these bugs are completely harmless. They won’t hurt you or other animals. At worst, they might damage a few young trees and shrubs. Mostly they will invade and cover certain parts of the region, though lots of people won’t ever see them. Cicadas are not destructive to crops or trees and they do not bite humans. They are a clumsy and fearless bug that flies and lands on almost all surfaces, including humans, cars, houses, and pets but they prefer trees.
Cicadas come up from underground for one thing and one thing only: sex. And they’ve been waiting on it for a long time.