It was probably 1998 when my cab pulled up to a hotel in Missouri and I was wondering how I was ever going to sleep under these buzzing power lines. Usually, my company put us up in nice hotels for business meetings, but this was ridiculous. The electric noise was deafening.
When I got out of the cab and stared overhead trying to find the source of electric buzzing, a couple of locals started to laugh. “Just the cicadas,” they explained. “They’ll shut up when it gets dark.” I sure hoped they were right.
After an entire day of sitting in meetings, I went for a walk. Heading down the sidewalk, the buzzing got louder as I approached each tree and then, suddenly, it stopped. Once I had safely passed the tree, it started up again. But, if I backed up, they shut up. This was highly entertaining. That evening, as promised, the cicada noise ended.
Minnesota has normal cicadas, but nothing like the periodical cicadas. Ours are around every year, a few at a time, so we hardly notice them. Although they are large, these big bugs are harmless — they don’t sting, don’t bite, and don’t even harm mature plants. They are just big, noisy insects.
But the periodical cicadas are a true phenomenon. Unique to North America, they spend either 13 or 17 years underground with their alarm clocks set for the same year. Once the soil temperature reaches 64 degrees in their designated year, they all emerge at the same time. Lots of them. One estimate is a billion cicadas per acre in affected areas.
It is a strategy entomologists call ‘predator satiation.’ Because there are so many cicadas, predators can eat as many as they want, but there will always be plenty left to mate and reproduce.
It is the male cicadas that make the 80 to 100 dB noise. They are calling for a mate. Obviously, the female cicadas find the racket much more appealing than I do.
This year, after spending 17 years underground, the Great Eastern Brood X will reappear in many eastern states from Tennessee to New York. These one-inch-long insects with a three-inch wingspan and bright red eyes will blanket many major metropolitan areas like Philadelphia, Washington DC, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Indianapolis.
News reporters are warning that garden blowers or lawn mowers may sound like cicada males and may attract hordes of females. Weddings which were postponed due to the pandemic may have a few thousand uninvited, noisy guests this year.
After 17 years underground, these cicadas are ready to party. They are only above ground for a few weeks with one, and only one goal — mating and laying eggs. Once the females lay their eggs on trees, the adults all die. In some areas, the carcasses need to be raked up before they start to rot.
Six to eight weeks after the adults disappear, their eggs hatch. The tiny nymphs fall off their trees and quickly burrow underground for another 17 years to repeat the whole cycle.
No one is sure why the cycle is 17 years. Perhaps with that long period, no other species has learned to rely on them as their primary food source.
Here in Minnesota, certain areas get an annual flood of lake bugs — mayflies, actually. Some years the swarm is so large that it can be seen on weather radar. The bugs get so thick in Redwing that they occasionally use snowplows to get them off the streets.
But lake bugs are small and quiet. They only last a day or two. Cicadas are huge. And very noisy.
Maybe I am bored, but after a year of being cooped up, I’m thinking the cicada hatch might be a good excuse for a road trip. After all, they spent 17 years preparing for this extravaganza; the least we can do is appreciate it.
Prime cicada viewing season this year will be from the end of April through early June. They are only active for four to six weeks.
Popular Mechanics magazine recommends cicada tourists bring noise cancelling headphones and wear wide brimmed hats to avoid the, well, cicada rain. Look closely. Maybe you’ll be able to see a rare white or blue- eyed cicada.
The University of Maryland has a cookbook for adventurous eaters. How about cicada rhubarb pie? They insist that the newly morphed adults, who are still white, taste like asparagus. I’ll just trust them on that.
If you don’t want to drive that far, and you are willing to wait a few more years, the Northern Illinois Brood XIII will hatch in 2024 in parts of Iowa, Wisconsin and Northern Illinois. Also in 2024, the Great Southern Brood XIX will also be emerging from its 13-year cycle further south.
A 13- and a 17-year emergence in the same year? That’s special. It has to be like the planets aligning. Will there be overlap? Could the two broods mate with each other? If so, when would their children emerge? Better plan ahead and get your hotel rooms while they are still available!