The call of the wild? A tribute to mating cicadas

Cicada emerging from its skin

As kids, we loved finding the shed shells of cicadas. Okay, I still like finding them. This glamor shot comes from the neat WhatsThatBug.com website.

(If insects make your skin crawl, you might want to skip this post.)

I’m sitting here on my deck in Brooklyn in midsummer, listening to the comforting sound of cicadas getting louder, then quieter, then louder again. But I don’t remember the cicadas being so loud last year. Turns out, they weren’t. I kind of knew there were different maturity periods for cicadas; I was in Kansas in 1998 when several species of cicada emerged at once — you could not walk without crunching them; they toppled plants because of the sheer weight. Curious about cicada life, I’ve compiled the following little factoids.

  • Cicadas are NOT locusts. Although I grew up thinking they were the same, true locusts are actually a type of grasshopper.
  • There are annual and periodical cicadas. The periodical varieties emerge at 13-year and 17-year intervals.
  • The periodical cicadas have the cool genus name “Magicicada”
  • During freaky periods, like in 1998 in the Midwest, a bunch of periodical species will emerge at once. Summer of 2015 is going to be another fun year for Mid-westerners, when a 13-year brood and a 17-year brood emerge along with the usual annual species. The University of Michigan zoology department has a cool chart on this. They also have recordings of their mating calls.
  • Cicadas don’t actually do much ecological harm. During the weird convergence periods, they can kill some plants do to the sheer numbers of them; their weight can topple plants. And some plants may suffer damage if too many eggs are deposited in plants (called flagging). Young trees are most vulnerable to this.
  • They don’t bite humans or animals. If one lands on you, it won’t hurt you.
  • Their chirping sound can be heard up to a mile away.
  • Adult females deposit eggs above ground, in slits they have made in plants.
  • Newly hatched cicadas then drop to the ground and burrow below, where they hang out for a year or more, depending on species. Each year they shed their skin and grow a new, bigger one. Adult also molt once above ground; finding a shell is a real thrill.
  • Even though they can live years underground, they only get four to six weeks above ground to mate and serenade us.
  • Nobody knows what purpose they serve. It’s true! This field of study is wide open, folks. Scientists haven’t found any purpose for cicadas at all.
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