For cicadas – it’s lining up to be a perfect storm

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

 ENVIRONMENT; COMMUNITY NEWS

by Michelle Cassell
Managing Editor 

Ready or not, here come the cicadas. If you don’t know what they are, you will be well acquainted with their extremely loud buzzing noise by the end of July. You will be tired of sweeping and stepping on empty shells, known as exuvia, which the adult cicadas leave behind when they emerge, and their three-inch crunchy insect carcasses when they die. Suffice it to say, unless you are a bird, frog, or mammal that lives in the woods, you won’t think kindly of their emergence.

According to the Nature Conservancy, cicadas are known to be the loudest insect in the world. (This link will give you a preview of the upcoming attractions.)

The cicada sound is created by tymbals, specialized structures found on the abdomen of males. The sound vibrates abdominal muscles quickly, causing the tymbals to create the sound. Their hollow bodies amplify the sound. Different cicada species create different sounds, allowing them to identify the same species for mating.

“It’s a huge boon to wildlife because they take advantage of this sudden extra food source,” Dr. Allen Hartley, Director of Graduate Studies for the Environment, Ecology and Energy  Program at UNC-Chapel Hill, told TLR.

Copperheads … really?

Copperhead near a porch in Chapel Hill. Photo by Julia Runk Jones.

Speaking of food sources, copperhead snakes are particularly fond of cicadas, and our area can expect a potential summer increase in the copperhead population. The snakes find cicadas to be a tasty source of protein and will often gather to eat them around the base of trees, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

If the thought of cicadas makes you uneasy, brace yourself for our 2024 event – It is a phenomenal year for these fascinating creatures that surface only once in 13 to 17 years.

The United States is anticipating the emergence of Broods XIX (“Great Southern Brood”) and XIII (Illinois Brood), two distinct groups that have been dormant underground for years. This year, the annual cicadas will join the bug “jamboree” in May, adding to the spectacle that will last about six weeks.

Brood XIX and Brood XII, each with their own separate cycles of 13 and 17 years, are about to synchronize their emergence. This extraordinary event has entomologists buzzing with anticipation. The last time this double emergence occurred was in 1803 when the United States completed the Louisiana Purchase. We won’t witness it again for another 221 years.

“It’s going to feel like a sudden onset, beginning sometime in mid to the end of May in Orange County,” Hartley said. Orange County will experience the Brood XIX and the annual cicadas.

For the cicadas to emerge, the top eight inches of soil must be at least 64 degrees Fahrenheit, combined with a good soaking rain. Hartley said this would most likely occur in mid-May in Orange County, but other scientists have said late April.

“Once the cicadas emerge, they form large aggregations,” he explained.

“The males are singing in a chorus to attract the females. The females are drawn to the places with the loudest songs.”

And loud they are! With densities previously recorded as high as 2 million cicadas per acre, the noise has been equated to the sound of an jet engine. They are especially prevalent in wooded areas, and their sound can carry for miles.

“Any one cicada isn’t going to move much more than 100 meters over its lifetime. It comes out of its hole, finds a mate, mates, finds a nearby tree to lay its eggs, and then dies,” Hartley said.

What do they look like?

Adult cicadas are usually 2-3 inches long, with large, clear wings and large reddish-black eyes set apart on each side of their heads.

What is their life cycle?

Before the cicadas emerged, these insects had spent the last 13 years living on the fluid in tree roots. After they dig out and mate, the females lay eggs on trees and shrubs by inserting them into the outer end of the branches. The adult cicadas then die.

The eggs incubate for about 40-60 days and become nymphs.

Nymphs drop to the ground and burrow approximately 1-2 feet. They feed on the fluids in the host plant’s roots. The mature nymphs then abruptly emerge from the dirt and mature into adults. This is when we see and hear them as they mate and eventually die, which takes between 14 and 50 days.

Are they dangerous to animals or people?

These insects do not harm people or pets, even if ingested. Cicadas do not bite. Pest control services will not respond to a cicada outbreak since the insects provide sustenance and nutrients for many woodland creatures. They are not considered “pests,” according to information from Orkin. They are also not attracted to light.

The adult cicadas do not cause any serious plant damage, and they do not suck blood or carry transmitable diseases.

 Good news for butterflies and moths

“In my research group, we are interested in the effect the insects have on birds and bird ecology that depend on caterpillars,” Hartley said.

Hartley explained that there are so many cicadas for the birds to eat in a cicada emergence year that they don’t eat caterpillars as they normally do. Consequently, the density of the caterpillars goes way up.

“We are going to be testing all around the Triangle with several study sites, measuring cicada and caterpillar density and getting a sense of how much birds will be relying on the cicadas as a food source,” Hartley said.

This is good news for butterflies and moths.

How the public can help the scientific research

Hartley is asking the general public to use a biodiversity app called iNaturalist to help scientists document the cicadas’ locations.


Michelle Cassell is a seasoned reporter who has covered everything from crime to hurricanes and local politics to human interest over the course of 35 years. As managing editor, she hopes to encourage writers of a wide range of backgrounds and interests in TLR’s coverage of Southern Orange County news. 
This reporter can be reached at Info@TheLocalReporter.press

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