In February, 2004, I moved into a home in the Pennsylvania woods, where I still live today. My husband and I were fulfilling a dream. We wanted our children to have room to roam and explore and enjoy God’s beautiful creation. Although born and raised in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, I knew that I was always a “country girl” at heart. That’s not to say, however, that moving into the woods of a small, rural, farming town didn’t place me on a serious learning curve. I often had to “face my fears” and learn how to navigate and leave peacefully alongside nature and wildlife. (Snakes! Bears! Coyotes! Bobcats! Even a cougar, that first year!) One thing that I was NOT prepared for, however, and that scared the living daylights out of me, was CICADAS! I’m talking MILLIONS of them!
It just so happened that we had moved into our home during an “emergence” year. At the time, I had no idea what that was because I had never even seen a cicada in real life! In an emergence year, millions of these insects claw their way from two feet below earth’s surface and suddenly “emerge” — at the rate of 1.5 million per acre! If you’ve never lived through a storm of cicadas, it’s a bit like being suddenly transported back in time to ancient Egypt during the plagues. It was terrifying! We literally had to cover our heads and RUN to get into the car.
Take cover! Cicadas are coming!
Anytime we had to go outdoors, we could feel the relentless pelting of winged insect, which we tried to avoid! If you weren’t fully covered, they would wind up trapped under the collar of your shirt or jacket. Picture a white-out from a blizzard, except instead of snow, you’re blinded by 2-inch long, flying insects! It never occurred to me when I celebrated New Year’s this year that it is 2021. AN EMERGENCE YEAR! The cicadas are coming back this spring — and it’s spring now, so…I’m terrified! LOL
65 degrees Fahrenheit is a magic temperature for cicadas
Cicadas have one of the longest insect life cycles. There are many species, and broods have different emergence systems. Scientists believe that the brood set to re-emerge in the eastern United States this year are members of Brood X. Brood X operates on a 17-year cycle, although erratic weather patterns have caused pockets of broods to emerge several years early.
The brood we encountered in 2004 would have mated during their plague-storm, laid their eggs in trees, then died off after four to six weeks. The nymphs hatch in trees six to 10 weeks later. They hatch, then fall to the ground and take cover about two feet under the surface. They live there for 17 years. Cicada nymphs feed off the liquid from the roots of plants. When the temperature of the underground soil approximately eight inches underground becomes 65 degrees Fahrenheit in the spring of the seventeenth year, they emerge!
If they’re on schedule, I only have a few weeks left!
This soil temperature eight inches under earth’s surface in our “neck of the woods” typically reaches 65 degrees Fahrenheit in late April or early May. If the weather is unseasonably warm for a consistent amount of time before then, it could happen sooner! The saying “There’s power in numbers.” is especially true for cicadas. Emerging as a brood (remember — millions at a time throughout the eastern United States) helps them survive predators, such as Asian hornets, raccoons, possums, birds, snakes and more. At least, it helps many of them.
I suppose it can be likened to an army who sends scouts and infantry out ahead. There’s a high likelihood of casualties in the front groups. With cicadas, this means predators will take to the initial emerging insects like an all-you-can-eat buffet. When they are full, the rest of the winged creatures will survive and begin their mating season, which includes the males’ deafening courtship songs. If this year’s 17-year cycle is on schedule, we should start seeing clouds of cicadas in four to six more weeks!
Cicadas can make noise that reaches 120 decibels
Think of how loud it might be if you were to stand new a group of lawnmowers or chain saws without ear protection. That’s basically how loud Brood X will be when the males begin sending out tones to attract mates. They generate the sound through organs called tymbals that are located on the sides of their abdomens. Scientists have been trying to recreate this sound-making system in the hope of one day inventing a device to help with underwater communication. Cicadas typically reach 60 decibels during a choral mating song. Some larger species can ‘sing’ at 100 or even, 120 decibels, which is the pain threshold for a human ear!
Terrifying but amazing, as well
It scares me just to think of seeing, hearing AND FEELING Brood X as they emerge and pummel us during their 2021 mating season! Aside from that, they truly are amazing creatures. For instance, in addition to studying their tymbals, scientists have also been closely observing their wings. A cicada’s wings has tiny, spiky fibers that protrude. What is amazing about these fibers is that they repel water, and they also are coated in a chemical that acts as a natural antibiotic! A cicada’s wings kill bacteria. The coating does its job, and the tiny spikes also cause the cell wells of bacteria to rupture and be torn, thus creating an antimicrobial setting on the surface of its wings!
Inventors have their eye on the water-resistant features of the wings, hoping to one day manufacture raincoats by reproducing similar components synthetically. The antimicrobial features of a cicada’s wings may also help scientists learn how to fight certain types of bacteria without overusing commercial antibiotics, which can cause bacteria to become resistant, thus making an antibiotic ineffective.
If you don’t hear from me later in spring, it means I’m hiding from the cicadas
My three youngest kids weren’t born when the cicadas made their appearance in 2004. (I was actually pregnant with the eldest of those three at the time.) They’ve many-a-story from their older siblings and are eagerly awaiting the emergence of Brood X! Their older brothers weren’t as freaked out as their mother back in 2004. In fact, they saw the whole cicada storm as a 24/7 free batting cage opportunity, which led to mom quoting Bible verses and constantly reminding them that cicadas are God’s creatures and every life is sacred, etc. The boys would try to justify their smash fests by saying they were protecting me. LOL
Cicadas don’t bite or sting, so that’s good. When you’re hit with a fast-flying cloud of them in the face, eyes, head, and neck while trying to get from your door to your car, however — they hurt like heck! After living in the woods for 17 years, I’ve become comfortable with nature. I’m still terrified of a few things, such as rattlesnakes, copperheads and cougars — oh, yeah, and cicadas! So, if this Hot Mess column goes dead silent some time in late April or early May, you’ll know I’ve gone ‘Biden’ on y’all and taken cover in my basement!