Cicadas – Ugly Off-Key Summer Love

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Photo by David L. Govoni ©2012

Swarmageddon. The Great Eastern Brood. The warbling horde. This past summer was a season of apocalyptic cicada proportions for the Northeast. Billions of wriggling nymphs clawed their way out of the bowels of the earth around April or May, cast off their crunchy exoskeletons, and descended upon humanity in a red-eyed, chirpy mass. They were noisy, they were thirsty and they were looking for love.

Prior to their emergence, these periodical Magicicadas had spent most of their lives quietly sleeping and sucking on tree roots. Magicicadas are on 13 or 17-year cycles, and when they emerged they threw a four to six-week party that was hard to ignore. Packing in as many as 200,000 to 250,000 insects per acre, these cicada parties included plenty of drinking (tree sap), plenty of noise (mating calls), and plenty of mating. But the party couldn’t last forever, and by mid-June the Magicicadas had faded into a faint humming memory.

The Magicicadas’ range only grazed the northern borders of North Carolina this past summer. But now the Raleigh air is humming with another buzz; not Magicicadas, but dog-day cicadas. These late-summer cicadas arrive yearly (not every 13 or 17 years like the Magicicadas), and unlike the shock-and-awe approach of the Magicicadas, dog-day cicadas are much better at blending into the background. Dog-day cicadas don’t coordinate a massive group emergence in one central location like Magicicadas, instead spreading their emergence over space and time, according to North Carolina State University entomology Professor Clyde Sorenson. They don’t live as long (only 2 -7 years compared with the 13 or 17-year Magicicadas) and go relatively unnoticed except for the softly buzzing trees and random tiny exoskeletons.

It’s easy to overlook any redeeming value Magicicadas or dog-day cicadas may have, but they do have something to contribute besides off-key love songs. They help the trees by aerating the soil as they emerge, and they prune the weaker branches when they lay their eggs. They also feed a whole host of other critters, including birds, squirrels, toads, fish, raccoons, possums, fungi, other insects, dumb dogs, and even humans (cicada ice cream, cicada banana bread, and a “Red Eyes” cocktail garnished with candied cicadas are just a few of the options). These weird but helpful contributions, coupled with the Magicicada’s deafening love drone and strength in numbers, make for a unique experience whenever and wherever an emergence occurs. And even the lesser ranks of dog-day cicadas can leave a high-pitched impression year after year. Most people won’t miss them, but for folks like Prof. Sorenson, who find themselves captivated by the delicate charms of these bug-eyed warblers, it’s more than just an impression. It’s more than just unique. “The loudest insect in the world is a cicada. Their life cycles, their sync patterns,” says Prof. Sorenson, “They’re just… fascinating.”

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