If you plan to visit New York City or anywhere from Albany and western Connecticut down through the Piedmont to Georgia this May or June, you may run into billions of periodical cicadas. (The Piedmont is the plateau region between the Atlantic Coastal Plain and the Appalachian Mountains.) These are the months when the so-called Brood II of these large – almost 2-inch – insects also known as 17-year locusts are emerging. Their species name is Magicicada semptendecim.
Here is what I wrote about Doris’ and my extraordinary experience with another locust emergence in 1998:
“We were traveling south on Interstate 65 just outside Nashville, Tenn., – my wife driving too fast as usual – when suddenly our car was pelted with what seemed at first to be bullets. No car was near enough to lift stones off the road, and clear skies eliminated hail as another possible culprit. Most of the objects ricocheted off the front of the car, but finally when several squished against the windshield we knew that we were driving through an insect swarm.
“Doris pulled onto the median and we got out, hesitantly, to see if we could find and identify the bugs. Finding them was easy – they were everywhere. The air was full of them buzzing about and thousands crawled on the ground. Injured or dead bugs littered the highway and the shoulders held even more, swept there by air currents around speeding traffic.
“We captured a few in my ever-ready glass jar to examine more closely. It was immediately apparent that they were cicadas, their translucent veined wings held roof-like over heavy black bodies. They had bright orange compound eyes and more orange marked their backs and spread into their wings.”
On that trip to Alabama we had chanced upon a Brood XIX outbreak, and we continued to find these bugs for the entire week we stayed in the South.
There are problems with calling those insects 17-year locusts. Cicadas are not locusts. Locusts are related to grasshoppers and crickets, while cicadas belong to the same family of true bugs as aphids, leafhoppers, scale insects and stink bugs. And cicada cycles differ: the more northerly periodical cicadas like those of Brood II emerge every 17 years, but several southern species like those Brood XIX cicadas have a 13-year life cycle. In fact all cicadas, including our so-called annual cicadas, have multiple-year life cycles.
Most of a cicada’s life is spent as a nymph that hatches from an egg deposited on the twig of a living tree. The nymph falls to the ground where it burrows down to spend its assigned years sucking sap from tree roots. Finally, its internal clock tells it to emerge, climb a tree, shed its exoskeleton and become another noisy adult for its few weeks of remaining life, just long enough to mate, produce eggs and start a new cycle.
Noisy indeed. During July and August, the loud songs of the mate-seeking males resound from trees seemingly everywhere. The high-pitched, power-saw whine of the dog-day cicada and the pulsing screech of the scissors-grinder cicada are central to the summer experience of eastern North America. These sounds, made by rubbing body parts called tymbals, are amplified by their hollow abdomens.
But those are individual cicadas singing. When the thousand-member leks of 17-year cicadas call, the deafening sound can reach that of a 747 warming up or a hallelujah chorus singing off-key.
These insects won’t damage your trees. Cicadas feed on sap from the xylem of woody plants, which they suck through their proboscis or feeding tube. The small amount of liquid they remove does no appreciable harm. Females do cut twigs to deposit their eggs, but even this could cause damage only in the swarming regions.
Cicadas won’t bite or sting, either. These bugs have neither stingers nor biting mouthparts. If you held one in your hand for a time, it might seek to penetrate your skin with its proboscis; however, since these insects are not poisonous, this would be nothing like a bee sting.
Here in the Niagara Region we do not experience periodical cicada outbreaks. The next and nearest emergence will be in the Finger Lakes region in 2018.