A couple weeks ago, I was driving along, listening to a conference call at a fairly loud volume on my car speakers, when I suddenly heard A VERY LOUD NOISE. Oh no, I thought. What is wrong with my car? I turned down my call and cracked open the window only to realize there was nothing wrong with my car. I had entered cicada territory!
For a couple weeks, I had been hearing folks say one of two things: OMG THE CICADAS! SO LOUD! or Have you seen any cicadas yet? Where are all the cicadas?
I fell into the latter camp. I live a mere five minutes away from where I thought my car was breaking down, and I had heard nothing so far. The nature nerd in me was kinda disappointed, despite the stories I was hearing about them keeping people up at night and clumsily flying into folks and bouncing off of car windows in certain parts of town where they were especially concentrated.
But once I hit that wall of cicada song, I knew I had to go see some cicadas for myself—and my kids needed to experience this, too.
So one morning, I loaded up my four children into the car without telling them where we were going, but with the promise of donuts as part of the adventure. We headed to a nearby metro park where large numbers of cicadas had been reported, and also happens to have a zipline they love to play on. (My children, not the cicadas!)
As soon as we stepped out of the car, the kids were clued in by the cicada bodies scattered across the parking lot, and the mounds of them heaped at the bottom of all the trees. Predictably, my oldest, the tween who is the least nature-y of the four, decided she wanted nothing to do with this “gross” adventure and parked herself in the car. My son and his two younger sisters were ALL ABOUT IT.
We ran from tree to tree, studying the piles of cicadas, checking out the hundreds of holes in the dirt where they had obviously made their ascent into the world after 17 years underground, and watched as live cicadas climbed the tree trunks.
I did my best to explain this phenomenon in a way that they could understand. The nutshell version is this: While we do hear annual cicadas every summer, Brood X is special because they are what we call periodical cicadas—they appear only every 17 years. (There are other periodical broods as well that appear either every 13 or 17 years—but Brood X is the largest brood.) These cicadas had tunneled deep underground long before my children were born and had been living off sap drawn from tree roots. This summer, they tunneled back up to the surface with one mission: sing (males), mate, lay their eggs (females), and die.
Cicadas do not hurt you—they neither sting nor bite. They are just big and loud—the loudest insects in the world, in fact—and clumsy fliers, which freaks a lot of people out when they are headed toward your face, but really, they are harmless.
In fact, they do so much good for our environment. First, there are a lot of animals out there having a FEAST right now! Birds, foxes, skunks, squirrels, turtles, fish, frogs—anything that can catch a cicada will eat them. (Some people even eat them! Um… NO THANK YOU.) Second, all those cicada bodies littering the ground are broken down by ants and fungus and other decomposers, creating a natural fertilizer for the earth.
“Why are there so many of them?” my children asked. While there are a lot of animals feeding on all the cicadas right now, the massive numbers in which cicadas emerge is actually a defense mechanism against predators. The sheer number of Brood X is way more than all the predators could ever consume, and so cicadas are pretty much guaranteed survival.
Plus, the females lay 500 eggs each to keep the population going! In fact, that is why they are haphazardly flying around… they are basically looking for trees to smack into, and then they start climbing up to lay their eggs in the branches. In about six weeks, those eggs will hatch and the nymphs will fall out of the trees to the ground, burrow down deep into the dirt, and the cycle begins again. (We agreed we did NOT want to be under those trees in six weeks. I’m not that squeamish about bugs, but… EW.)
Because I am THAT MOM, I worked in a little cross-curricular math lesson: “How old will you be when the cicadas return in 17 years?” 28! 25! The big kids helped the little kids count on their fingers… 22! 20! That was fun until they got to me… GAH! I don’t care to think about that number!
Also because I am THAT MOM, I had a little surprise planned for dessert that evening. “Who wants to eat a cicada?” Ew! Yuck! Gross! Oh wait…
Turns out cicadas taste pretty good after all.
About the Author
Jessica Vaughan is Assistant Editor for Bird Watcher's Digest and Watching Backyard Birds. She is the mother of four young birders and lives in Columbus, Ohio.