A rare event unfolding across parts of the eastern United States is halfway completed. It involves not millions — nor billions — but trillions of identical insects having emerged from the earth all at once, giving the illusion at the apex of the event that the ground itself is moving. They have come up after spending 17 years underground, nurturing themselves on the sap of tree roots. Once aboveground, they have six weeks to molt into adulthood, mate, and lay eggs before they all die. We are three weeks into this part of their lifecycle.
Magicicadas, also known as periodic cicadas because they surface every 13 or 17 years, are unique to North America. So much about their behavior remains a mystery to scientists, whose careers can feel too short to study enough generations of the insects. Brood X, as the current group is called every time it returns, has already carpeted over a dozen states as well as the District of Columbia.
The occurrence started sometime in May, when the temperature in the ground reached 64 degrees Fahrenheit, and it will end late in June. The first telltale signs were holes that appeared in the soil, empty tunnels that Brood X cleared as they dug themselves out. A dozen such tiny grottos can translate to several hundred thousand cicadas covering one acre of land.
The cicadas continue to climb up whatever happens to be standing in their way, usually the trunk of the same tree that nurtured them at the root for many years prior. If you observe a cicada during this part of its lifecycle, you will find that it stops at eye level and begins to molt, squeezing itself upward and outward through the thorax of its nymph shell, emerging upright, a plump, soft, pearl-white creature the length of two or three pennies, with orange-red eyes and two small black patches above its folded wet wings. In this state, the insect actually looks quite marvelous. And delicious.
Indeed, birds, reptiles, and mammals will quickly discover the feast, perhaps best described by one BBC Earth commentator who opines on footage of various animals eating cicadas, announcing that “times have never been so good.” He adds: “The cicadas have no defenses and virtually offer themselves to their attackers.”
The cicada does not bite and does not sting. Place your hand a hair’s length from a cicada and it will not even flinch, its senses completely dulled, perhaps, after having lived for so many years in the earth. The cicadas’ only survival strategy is their sheer numbers, like salmon and fruit trees. They come out all at once, so their predators become satiated with the fatty snack early in the cicada’s short adult lifecycle, allowing a robust percentage of the brood to thrive and ensure the survival of the next generation. (Humans, too, can have a taste of this proteinaceous treat. Brave souls can learn from chef Joseph Yoon of Brooklyn Bug, a self-described ambassador for edible bugs. He promises in one of his online demos that there is “no need to get fancy” and invent new recipes, saying cicadas “are delicious any which way you cook them.”)
The trillions of cicadas that escape being eaten will continue to climb the trees, racing against the clock to produce offspring. They will unfold their wings, which catch a rainbow hue in the light, and their exoskeletons will harden and turn black, thus marking their final transformation from nymph to adult. In their urgent quest, they leave behind the empty shells of their former nymph selves, a fully formed white crustacean that remains precariously attached to the tree bark until it eventually falls to the ground. A male cicada must sing well enough and long enough to impress at least one female who may agree to mate with him. A cicada singing solo is rare, but if you manage to isolate one, you may hear his rhythmic chirp, three short and one long. And if you’re further enticed to look that up in morse code, you will learn that this stands for the letter V, as in “victory.” (A distress call, on the other hand, sounds like the clucking of a chicken.)
The cicada comes with his own “musical instrument,” a triangular white patch located on each side of his ribs, a membrane-like vibrating organ called the tymbal. A cicada buckles his tymbal to produce sound that becomes further amplified through his hollow abdomen, then he uses his wings to direct his song. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of cicadas can be heard chorusing together, broadcasting their mating song from treetops in a cacophony that rises to 100 decibels, almost as loud as a jet plane flying overhead. In the midst of this, a singing cicada must also listen for the subtle approval of any female that may be nearby.
Much has been written about the rising and waning din of cicadas, compared at times in its strangeness to the imagined sound of UFOs. It has even inspired human songs and poetry. Bob Dylan was moved to write “Day of the Locusts” when he heard the cicadas in 1970 at Princeton University as he was receiving his honorary degree.
“Yeah, the locusts sang off in the distance
Yeah, the locusts sang such a sweet melody
Oh, the locusts sang off in the distance
And the locusts sang and they were singing for me”
American poet Ogden Nash, known for his lighthearted prose, also felt the inspiration of cicadas when he wrote “Locust-lovers, attention!” in 1936, a poem later published in the New Yorker.
“Overhead, underfoot, they bond
And they have been seventeen years in the ground
For seventeen years they were immune to politics and class war
And capital taunts and labor taunts,
And they have come out like billions of insect debutants”
Cicadas are not locusts, contrary to the common misperception. Locusts belong with grasshoppers to the Acrididae family, while cicadas like crickets fall under Cicadidae, or true bug. Locusts travel and eat all things green and leafy found along the way, wreaking havoc on crops and the sustenance of humans and animals alike. Unprecedented and dangerous swarms of locusts have been ravaging parts of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa since last year. Cicadas, by contrast, harm no one and hardly cause any damage to the vegetation in their area. They are clumsy flyers and don’t travel far, and when they die, they will disintegrate into the soil and become nutrients for the very same trees that nurtured them at the root for years prior.
When the female signals her approval to a singing male, she claps her wings together and produces a “click” sound, not unlike the snap of human fingers. (And yes, if you snap your fingers together you will entice a male cicada to move toward you.) The female must be choosy. She has time to mate only once, so she must pick a worthy male with good genes to fertilize her eggs. A successful pair will face away from each other, align their rear ends and mate for an hour or so before the male goes back to his singing.
Within a day, the female will find an appropriate thin branch — an offshoot in a tree or a shrub — and using her ovipositor will carve, as if with a saw, a line in the wood and deposit her eggs, up to 600 of them, distributing them 30 at a time in different locations. After that, her lifecycle will be complete.
It is impossible to predict what the future holds for Brood X as insect populations around the world decline due to climate change and human activity. In the U.S., Brood XI has been extinct since 1954, when it was last seen in Connecticut. Experts warn that Brood X may experience a marked decline in population when it returns in 17 years, as the simple act of building a parking lot and pouring asphalt, for example, may trap an entire generation of cicada nymphs underground forever.
But for now, Brood X eggs will sit inside wooden grooves that resemble those inside an egg carton, except on a minuscule scale. We are about halfway through their six-week gestation period, and soon we will witness the eggs hatch and drop to the ground like scattered grains of rice. Unlike your average maggot, these first instar nymphs will already have six tiny legs and two antennae. They will lose no time in burrowing below the soil, at first nestling a few inches down. In a few more weeks, the nymphs will be buried up to 12 inches under, settling in for the long haul on a healthy tree root from which they will drink sap through their straw-like mouths. They will endure the next 17 winters in that state, emerging again at last in the spring of 2038.