My daughter graduated from college in 2004 and we went to her open-air graduation ceremony in New Jersey in late May of that year. It was a memorable event, not just because of the occasion but because it also coincided with the 17-year cycle for the emergence of cicadas in the eastern part of the US. This year will see the next emergence.
The periodic cicadas – bugs with strikingly red eyes, black bodies and orange wings – burrow underground as nymphs and suck fluids from the roots of plants as they grow, eventually bursting into the open as adults in mass synchronized events.
The last such event for 15 states including New York, Ohio, Illinois and Georgia occurred in 2004. The cicadas emerge in a 17-year cycle, meaning they will appear this year once temperatures are warm enough, expected to be mid-May.
“They may amass in millions in parks, woods, neighbourhoods, and can seemingly be everywhere,” said Gary Parsons, an entomologist at Michigan State University. “When they are this abundant, they fly, land and crawl everywhere, including occasionally landing on humans.”
Parsons said that while cicadas will not harm people, pets that gorge on them may become ill. It is thought that long underground development helps cicadas survive predators, as their huge and synchronized arrival provides protection in numbers.
The noise made by the enormous swarms will be noticeable, however, with males emitting mating calls that can reach 100 decibels, the same sound as standing next to a motorcycle revving its engine. The males produce these mating “songs” by vibrating their tymbals, two rigid, drum-like membranes on the underside of the abdomen.
Experts say if people are able to forget about the noise and the surprise of surroundings covered with cicadas, they will be able to appreciate a rare wonder of the natural world.
It is quite something to behold. I had never seen or heard anything like it. In fact, I had not even heard of cicadas before being confronted by this event. Although I lived in Ohio, I only moved there in 1989, after the previous cicada explosion in 1987.
What intrigues me is the cycle of 17 years. That seems like such an odd number (pardon the pun). Insects in general live such short lives, usually measured in days and months, that having such a long gestation period seems weird.
Evolution produces some fascinating life forms.