Eastern US States Brace For An Onslaught Of Millions Of Noisy 17-Year Cicadas

By

CCSS NAS-3
17-year cicadas are emerging in large numbers from underground in Eastern USA (Credit: Futureman1199 /CC BY-SA -3.0 Creativecommons.org)

As if the COVID-19 pandemic has not been difficult enough, 2020 has another "trick" in store for the residents of Southwest Virginia, parts of North Carolina, and West Virginia. This one will come in the form of millions and millions of noisy cicadas who are gradually emerging from their 17-year underground hibernation to spend the final few weeks of their lives mating and breeding. Dubbed Brood IX, the alien-like insects are expected to peak in mid-June, with as many as 1.5 million specimens emerging per acre. The visit, however, will be short-lived, and most will be gone by July.

Cicadas spend most of their lives underground in their nymph stage and only emerge above ground for a few weeks to mate and breed (Credit: cicadamania.com)

Unlike annual cicadas, who often show up like uninvited guests at summer barbecues, periodical cicadas spend most of their lives underground in an immature "nymph" stage, sucking sap from tree roots. They emerge in their adult state as black, shrimp-sized alien-like bugs, with red, beady eyes and transparent wings every 13 or 17 years to reproduce, and die soon after.

While researchers do not know the reason for the odd number of years the bugs spend underground, they have a theory. They speculate that if the insects came out after an even number of years, say 16, they would make predictable prey for predators with two, four, and eight-year lifespans. However since 13 and 17 are both prime numbers, any predator that might depend on the insects would have to match that lifespan. As to how the cicadas know when to emerge? That's a well-kept secret known only to the bugs!

The alien-like insects can be annoying due to their loud mating calls (Credit: James St. John / CC BY-SA 2.0/ creativecommons.org)

Even though they are not dangerous, the clouds of millions of cicadas can be a little daunting and even a nuisance since they seem to appear everywhere. Additionally, the constant drone of male cicadas, which sing at 120 decibels, about the range of the human pain threshold, to attract females, can be annoying,

"It's like a loud, loud humming noise, like millions of grasshoppers all at once," Virginia farmer Debbie Noonkester told As It Happens host Carol Off. "Then they've got this weird shriek every once in a while ... and it's a just really, really strange sound."

Noise aside, Noonkester has another reason for disliking the insects. They cause significant damage to her young blueberries, blackberries, peaches, and apple trees. That's because, within days after their emergence, female cicadas begin to seek pencil-width twigs or vines in which to lay their eggs. The slits they create to place the eggs often cuts off the food supply causing the branch to wither. While mature trees can withstand the damage, young fruit or nursery trees often become stunted or even die. The orchard farmer says she lost 500 trees during the previous cicada visit, 17 years ago.

The cicadas lay their eggs inside slits created in thin twigs, which often kills young plants (Credit: lorax/ CC BY-SA 3.0/ creativecommons.org)

The eggs hatch by the end of the summer, and the immature cicadas drop down to burrow into the soil, where they spend the next 17 years feeding on the plants' roots. Their work completed, the parents die and end up as a once-in-a-lifetime treat for cats, dogs, birds, squirrels, rats, and even humans. In case you are curious, the high protein bugs taste like "cold canned asparagus."

Annoying and destructive as they may be, Virginia Tech entomologist Doug Pfeiffer believes the cicadas' rare and brief visit should be appreciated. The expert says, "This insect is really fascinating, and if you don't have fruit trees or grapevines to protect, you can enjoy this phenomenon while it lasts."

Resources: nbcnews.com, www.pubs.ext.vt.edu, npr.org,sciencenetlinks.com

Get the Workbook for this article!

Workbook contains: Article, Reading Comprehension, Critical Thinking Questions, Vocabulary in Context (+ answers), Multiple Choice Quiz (+ answers), Parts of Speech Quiz (+ answers), Vocabulary Game (+ answers)
Cite Article
170 Comments
  • monky-d-lufy
    monky-d-lufyWednesday, July 8, 2020 at 12:17 pm
    I love cicadas but yes they can get really annoying i live in Ohio & Kentuky.
    • animereina2020
      animereina2020Monday, July 6, 2020 at 8:52 pm
      I live in Kentucky now, and so far I don't hear a single cicada!
      • annsbanans
        annsbanansMonday, July 6, 2020 at 1:22 pm
        I was swimming in our pool and hot tub and a cicada flew in the filter and came out threw the hot tub jets in to my friends bathing suit and the nasty bud was still alive and eww just eww
        • 11008800
          11008800Monday, July 6, 2020 at 12:52 pm
          So Awesome. I like their noises.
          • lpsbrooklyn11
            lpsbrooklyn11Thursday, July 2, 2020 at 11:55 am
            Ewww shivers**
            • borilover
              boriloverTuesday, June 30, 2020 at 1:19 pm
              Weird, creepy, but COOL! (Like if you agree)
              • laynebot5
                laynebot5Monday, June 29, 2020 at 6:21 pm
                Cicadas are cool I like them
                • roblox_player
                  roblox_playerMonday, June 29, 2020 at 8:12 am
                  I am not a fan of bugs. i was scared reading it bugs. are scary to me that freaked me out.
                  • beachvibes2020
                    beachvibes2020Monday, June 29, 2020 at 7:07 am
                    I feel bad for all of y'all in the.Eastern states!!!😢😢P.S. I changed my name. (I was Hey2468)🙂
                    • animereina2020
                      animereina2020Monday, June 29, 2020 at 4:29 pm
                      I LOVE your name! That really does give me a beach vibe 🌴❤
                      • pinep23
                        pinep23Wednesday, July 1, 2020 at 3:39 pm
                        Me to!
                        • zaks
                          zaksSunday, July 5, 2020 at 7:29 am
                          I live in Florida so I am a fan of beaches in other words I like your name to.
                          • chiligirl
                            chiligirlWednesday, July 8, 2020 at 10:09 pm
                            I love it too! I think its funny everyone loves it...tho...I did like your last name too, can I follow you? PLEASE! I'll follow you anyway...
                    • foralljustice
                      foralljusticeSunday, June 28, 2020 at 8:40 am
                      That is just 😝
                      • animereina2020
                        animereina2020Sunday, June 28, 2020 at 5:31 pm
                        Ikr! They make the video seem like a horror movie lol! Btw, I followed you!
                        • chiligirl
                          chiligirlWednesday, July 8, 2020 at 10:13 pm
                          Lol! 😀