Get ready for Swarmaggedon. From North Carolina to Connecticut, the East Coast is bracing itself for one of Mother Nature’s most spectacular events. The cicadas are here. They may gross you out with their big, red eyes, orange wings and crunchy, black bodies, but without stingers or teeth, they are relatively harmless. It’s a good thing too, because hundreds of millions of them will emerge, outnumbering us humans by as many as 600 to one.

There are more than 2,500 species of cicadas, and most come and go yearly with barely a notice, but the ones we’re expecting any day now are the magicicada, or periodical cicadas. There are 15 different broods of periodical cicadas, which emerge in different parts of the United States and in varying masses on a 17-year or 13-year timetable, depending on the brood. We’re bracing for the large Brood II variety, which are the offspring of the 1996 cicadas. These insects were born when President Bill Clinton was in office.

Cicadas start out as eggs about the size of a grain of rice. The female can lay as many as 600 of them. Once they hatch, the grubs begin to suck on the branch they hatched on before falling to Earth, where they begin digging in search of a tree root. They become nymphs, a stage that they will remain in for all of their underground lives.

Magicicadas always emerge in spring and early summer, April through June. Some unfortunate stragglers might appear a few years early or a few years late, but these quickly fall prey to predators. Wingless nymphs live completely underground, surviving solely on xylem of living trees and the fat stored in their bodies.

Magicicadas go through several stages of development. Then, for reasons that scientists still don’t completely understand, once the temperature eight inches below the ground reaches 64 degrees, the nymphs begin bubbling out from the Earth and begin climbing trees, shrubs and everything else. After about a week, they’ll shed their exoskeletons and emerge as loud, red-eyed, obnoxious, flying adults with one thing on their minds: mating.

The raucous courtship ritual lasts from four to six weeks and can be summed up in one word: LOUD. The males have plates on their abdomens to produce their courtship songs while females click their wings together to signal approval. But their singing, if you call it that, can reach up to 94 decibels, as loud as a rock concert and loud enough to drown out airplanes.

Trees are critical to the cicada life cycle. While cicadas are parasites, feeding on the fluids from trees, they don’t do mass harm the way locusts do. It would not be in the cicadas’ best interest to destroy the trees because they depend on them for their survival. They crawl up into the trees once they emerge and develop into adults, mating and laying eggs in the trees. Saplings and weak branches may see a little damage.

Cicadas emerge in such spectacular numbers due to a strategy called “predator satiation.” This ensures that there will be plenty of them to satisfy the appetites of their predators, both above and below ground, while also making sure that there are enough of them left to produce the next generation. Pesticides, extreme weather, tree removal and construction are man-made threats. Besides birds, other insects, wildlife and humans who make a meal of them, magicicadas also fall victim to a pathogenic fungus called Massospora cicadina. This fungus lives in the soil and infects the nymphs as they leave the ground. It grows in the abdomen and, in worst cases, causes the abdomen to fall off. The fungus discharges spores and infects other cicadas as they mate. Males are left unable to mate; females can mate but can’t produce eggs. The fungus then goes into a resting phase back in the ground where it will remain dormant, waiting to infect the next brood of cicadas. The survival-by-large-numbers strategy works because cicadas are the longest-living insects known.

After nearly two decades in the ground, the cicadas will have their fun, but their time in the sun is short. Males die soon after mating and females die soon after laying their eggs. After a few weeks of development, the newly hatched nymphs literally rain down from the trees and burrow into the ground, where they will spend another 17 years before the cycle starts all over again.

The next magicicada wave happens in 2030 and will be the ninth generation of Brood II cicadas to emerge since 1894. Check out all things cicada at www.cicadamania.com.

Magicada Fun Facts

  • It’s estimated that between 30 billion and 1 trillion Brood II cicadas will emerge.
  • If all the cicadas were lined up head to tail, they would reach to the moon and back–some 477,714 miles.
  • You can eat cicadas. They are best before they morph into adults. They are full of protein and have a nutty flavor. Animals love to eat cicadas. Even fish love them.
  • Cicadas don’t eat solid food. Instead, they suck juices from trees and plants.
  • Cicadas are about the size of a large paper clip.
  • Cicadas only sing during the daytime and make the loudest sound of any insect. They can be heard half a mile away.
  • Cicadas have five eyes–two big red ones called compound eyes and three smaller ones called ocelli situated between them. The smaller ocelli are used to detect light and darkness.

Activities

  • LOOK IT UP: Use the Internet or other reference source to learn more about cicadas.

TALK ABOUT IT

Cicadas use their massive numbers to survive. What are some other methods that plants, animals and insects use to survive?

Write it down

Cicadas are insects. What is the difference between a bug and an insect? Draw a cicada and note the different body parts.

This Week in Black History

  • May 13, 1950: Happy birthday, Stevie Wonder! Steveland Hardaway Judkins is born in Saginaw, Mich.
  • May 15, 1918: Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts become the first Americans awarded the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest military honor, for their valor in World War I.
  • May 17, 1988: Renowned ophthalmologist Dr. Patricia Bath patents a device that effectively removes cataracts using laser technology.