The noise will be almost constant as the males assemble in huge “choirs” to sing and attract mates.
They’ll hit windshields, annoy bicyclists, possibly damage young trees, and scare the living crap out of you by landing in your hair.
They’re cicadas, specifically 17-year cicadas, or periodical cicadas, which have spent the past 17 years underground, feeding on sap from tree roots. Now they’re emerging to breed and lay eggs.
This is the year of the Brood V emergence. There are 15 active periodical cicada broods, and Brood V will effect Ohio, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. Though my home state of Maryland will mostly see them in the western parts, I will never forget my first encounter, the 2004 Great Eastern Brood (Brood X) emergence. (One of the two largest periodical cicada broods in North America — along with the Great Southern Brood, XIX. See all broods.)
In Houston — where I grew up — there were no periodical cicadas. I didn’t even know such a thing existed. A very small part of Texas does, however, get effected by the Kansan Brood (Brood IV), but only in the northern part of the state — no where near Houston. So imagine my surprise, discomfort, etc. when, as a relatively new resident to the Mid-Atlantic states, I encountered in 2004 what looked to me like an insect plague of biblical proportions.
First of all, the sound was like a high-pitched car alarm that never cuts off. I crunched on them when I walked. I had to roll up my windows and close my sunroof at stop lights — if I had them open at all. And yes, they landed in my hair practically every time I set foot outside. I was convinced Armageddon was approaching, and I had started to look for blood in the rivers as well.
Before then, my only studies in the natural sciences was in physical geography, so I was a little intimidated by these annoying buggers. But not knowing about the cicadas was my problem. Because once they were gone, I learned more about them to the point that I was so fascinated by them I became fascinated by ALL INSECTS. (Okay, maybe not ALL insects. #cockroaches). I then looked forward to the 2008 (Brood XIV) and the 2013 (Brood II) cicada emergences for my state.
Like I said, though, the problems humans have with a majority of species is simple ignorance. Not understanding a species leads to the fear of them, and a fear of certain species leads to their unfortunate — and unnecessary — destruction as well. Once you understand a species, however, you can have a greater appreciation for them. Now, as a Naturalist, I’m constantly volunteering for any projects that involve insects, arachnids, reptiles and amphibians. Not only are they the most fascinating, in my opinion, but they’re also the ones in the most danger due to human ignorance.
So, if you aren’t already familiar, here’s what you need to know about periodical cicadas, and Brood V specifically:
Periodical cicadas are unique to eastern North America and emerge every 13 or 17 years, depending on the species. Cicada nymphs burrow underground and feed on tree sap until a specific period of time passes. Adult cicadas emerge from the ground and live for up to six weeks with one objective — to mate and lay eggs. “Broods” are groups of cicadas that emerge at the same time, but can include multiple species. Brood V is emerging now.
Each brood has a restricted geographical range, which means on any given year, somewhere in the eastern United States, a brood of periodical cicadas could be emerging. 15 unique broods have been identified to date, and their emergence timing and location are fairly well-known. Not all cicada species, however, are “periodical.” Annual cicada species can be heard singing in the trees every year, but their numbers are far less than periodical cicada broods.
Why periodical cicadas evolved such a long development cycle is not known, but the answer could be linked to predator avoidance. Brood V, like most broods, spends 17 years underground! After 17 years elapse, they dig to within six to eight inches of the surface and wait to emerge until ground temperatures reach between 64 and 66 degrees. The cicadas crawl up on plants to shed their nymphal exoskeleton and dry out their wings.
People in OH, MD, PA, VA, & WV can expect to see hundreds, thousands, or even millions of periodical cicadas this spring, depending on timing and locations. Brood V cicadas will be quite numerous in good forest habitat, and less abundant in urban areas. Males call to mates using a loud screech, which is created with a structure called a tymbal. They flex tiny muscles to “click” a stiff membrane back and forth very, very quickly. This fast clicking creates the loud sound we hear from the treetops.
Specific areas within the listed states that will be guaranteed to encounter periodical cicadas this year are eastern OH, western MD, southwestern PA, northwestern VA, and all of WV. If you find one in your house, car, or (I’m sorry) in your hair, try to handle them gently and set them outside. They do not bite, but they will try to flutter their wings when handled, which can be startling – not to mention they’re kind of scary to look at. Nymphs emerging from the ground and shedding their exoskeleton are very delicate for a few hours before they can fly. Though you should avoid touching them at this early stage, they can be pretty cool to look at if you find one.
This unfortunate little guy is an annual cicada that didn’t get the chance to have his wings dry or harden before my friend’s dog picked him up and delivered it to her as a gift. She posted this pic on Instagram, and no one had a clue as to what on earth this thing was. (Once they harden, they lose their iridescent blue coloring.) Photo: Blair Osborne.
There is so much that is not known about these insects including how they count the years, why 17 or 13 year cycles, and how the broods originated. They represent a fascinating species with much to be discovered, and they live right here in the backyards of almost half the country! (See all broods). Insect emergences like periodical cicadas don’t happen very often and they are special to the eastern United States. The rarity of the event and the sheer numbers that will emerge in synchrony after so many years is a spectacle to behold rather than fear.
I still can’t guarantee I won’t freak when one lands in my hair, though.