If you live along the East Coast, get ready to be overcome by swarms of cicadas!
Brood II, one of 15 active broods of periodical cicadas in the United States, will soon emerge from the ground after 17 years.
The cicadas, which have the longest lifespan of any known insect, spend most of their lives beneath the ground feeding on plant roots before emerging to the open air for a few short weeks to mate and lay their eggs. Then the noisy insects die off and the cycle starts again.
This particular brood, which inhabits a narrow band that stretches from North Carolina to Connecticut, was last seen in 1996, when Bill Clinton was campaigning for his second term, cyber cafes were all the rage, and kids were doing the Macarena.
Periodical cicadas are large in size — up to 2” long — with prominent red eyes, intricately veined transparent wings, orange and black bodies, and a resonant, unmistakable song. Male cicadas have noisemakers called tymbals in their abdomens, which they click together at a rapid pace to produce a unique wailing sound. Because their abdomens also include a hollow echo chamber, their song can be exceptionally loud. As nymphs, they are wingless, and they molt to take on their adult form, leaving behind a papery brown exoskeleton.
The 17-year variety of periodical cicadas is only one type of cicada. There are also 13-year cicadas, as well as more common cicadas – popularly known as “dog day cicadas” because they usually show up in mid-July – that hang around year after year.
Entomologists believe that periodical cicadas developed their unusual pattern as an evolutionary tactic to foil predators. Because each brood emerges in such great numbers — more than 1.5 million per square acre in some areas — there simply aren’t enough predators to eat them all, which helps the species to survive.
Brood II is one of the larger broods, in terms of geographic area, but there are a few that are even larger still. Brood X, the Great Eastern Brood, last seen in 2004, spans the same number of states along the East Coast, but is wider, extending as far as Illinois to the west. Brood XIX, or the Great Southern Brood, last seen in 2011, encompasses most of the Southeastern U.S. In any given year, there is usually at least one brood emerging somewhere in the country.
Cicadas don’t bite or sting, and are therefore mostly harmless to humans. Some find their vast numbers to be a nuisance, while others are enchanted by them.
Because of their tendency to appear in vast swarms, cicadas are often colloquially referred to as locusts, though locusts are technically a different species that also appears in epic proportions. Cicadas are related to crickets, while locusts are actually grasshoppers.
The insects are considered a delicacy in some countries, and can be eaten raw or prepared any number of ways.
Cicadas are rich in folklore and symbolism, thanks, no doubt, to their striking looks, unique sound, and unusual life cycle.
In China and Japan, they are seen as a symbol of reincarnation, and of the fleeting nature of life. In France, they represent nonchalance or joie de vivre. In ancient Greece, they symbolized immortality, as illustrated by the myth of Tithonus, who turns into a cicada after being granted eternal life, but not eternal youth, by the god Zeus.
There is also a bit of weather lore surrounding dog day cicadas. The day of their first emergence is said to predict when the first frost will arrive — exactly six weeks later.
Whether their arrival has some sort of symbolic significance to you or not, there’s no denying that a brood’s emergence is awe-inspiring. If you’ve never experienced an emergence for yourself, here’s a video showing just how thick, and deafening, these insects can be.