The cicadas are coming!

Yes, the scary, loud, big-eyed bugs that make an occasional appearance are back for their 2013 showing. Swarms of the Magicicada Brood II, better known as the 17-year locust, are expected to make their grand appearance by the billions in backyards, parks and just about anywhere that is unpaved in some local areas.

They have already started to make their presence known in Northern Virginia.

They are expected to visit some areas of Maryland in fewer numbers.
Their visit will last four to six weeks, scientists said.

While many humans are loathe for the bugs to appear, they will be welcomed by the ecosystem, experts said.

“Believe it or not, the Brood II cicada is considered one the jewels of the insect world and eco-system,” said Corinne Parks, director of the Carrie Nature Center in Baltimore. “Imagine cheese burgers or chicken boxes falling from the sky—minus the grease, of course—that is what the cicadas are to our wildlife and our ecosystem.”

Even some two-legged creatures are prone to snack on the bugs.

“Right now, everything on the planet wants to eat a cicada,” said Michael Raupp, an entomologist with the University of Maryland. “In 2004, folks were even dipping them in chocolate. I prefer them raw.”

Let’s take a moment to examine these Brood II cicadas. The word brood means they appear collectively and the Roman numeral is the classification. The Brood II is a 17-year periodical species of cicada that will only appear in 2013 in the states of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The District will also have appearances, experts said.

Older neighborhoods, whose soil has not been disturbed by construction in the last decade, are most likely to host swarms.

There are annual locusts, but they appear in numbers so small they are often overlooked. The more noticeable cicadas are the 13- and 17-year broods because they arrive in the billions. This year’s group is the 17-year variety. The next cicada onslaught, Brood V, is expected by scientists to appear in 2016, experts said.

There are 12 broods of 17-year cicada, and three broods of 13-year cicadas. Between emergences, young cicadas called, nymphs, live underground and feed on fluids from roots of trees and other plants. The nymphs are white or clear in color and are the size of a big ant. A few weeks before they emergence, the nymphs will build exit tunnels to the surface. After sunset on the eve of their emergence, the nymphs leave their burrows only if the temperature on the ground is exactly 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Why 64 degrees Fahrenheit? No one knows. It is one of Mother Nature’s mysteries.

The newly-emerged nymphs will spend four to six days molting into adults. An adult Brood II cicada has a black body, striking red-ruby eyes, orange wing veins, with a black “W” or “P” near the tip of the forewings. Folklore holds that the w appears in wartime, p in peacetime.

The adult male cicada begins his mating song from high in the tree tops to attract a female. While he is singing his heart out, the female cicada is busy building her egg nest inside small tree branches. Once her nest is complete, the female Brood II cicada produces timed, wing flicks to respond to the males’ song.

With as many as 1.5 million cicadas per acre, the standard number for the Brood II, the mating choruses can be quite deafening, with a sound similar to an undulating fire engine siren or air raid horn.

After mating, the female cicada will lay her eggs in the nest and die. The male dies shortly thereafter.

Anne Arundel and Calvert counties are expected to have the largest populations this year.

While they look scary, the Brood II cicadas are born without any defense mechanisms; however, they do have sight. Their instincts are to look for vertical trees to mate and lay eggs, but often the cicada may mistake our legs, arms, backs and the tops of heads as tree parts. That explains their tendency to fly toward humans. Cicadas are harmless—they don’t bite, sting, or suck your blood.

So there is no reason to run into traffic, crash your car, or frantically strip naked in public for fear that one will take a bite out of you. A simple flick is all that is needed to remove them.

To sum up: The cicada lives underground for 13 or 17 years depending on the brood, digs its way to the surface, has 4 to 6 days to become an adult, finds their true love, mates for no longer then one minute and dies.

Be kind to the cicadas.

“Nature is eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Brood II cicada for many reasons,” Parks said. “Food to start with. Foxes, skunks, raccoons, and birds love dining on the cicada and with the abundance of food, the wildlife population is very happy and with that comes lots and lots of babies, thus increasing wildlife population.”

Cathy Allen

AFRO Science Writer