Periodical Cicadas prepare for return

By BJ Price - Preble SWCD

Jump in your time machine and travel back to 2004 with me. The Boston Red Sox won the World Series for the first time since 1918. President George W. Bush was elected to his second term of office. Martha Stewart was convicted of a felony and was sentenced to five months in prison. Ken Jennings won over 2.5 million dollars on Jeopardy! And Brood X of the Magicicada periodical cicadas emerged by the billions in 15 states across the eastern U.S. The magi- in the genus name comes from the Ancient Greek magos meaning “magician,” which alludes to the fact that they appear as if by magic.

Those of you who lived in this part of the world in the spring and early summer of 2004 will certainly remember the sights and sounds of the cicadas that season. Your author worked at his grandfather’s tool and die shop in New Paris that spring, and I can still remember the noise and racket the cicadas made going down the hill on the slant road into New Paris on my way to work. Even 17 years ago they were more active in some areas than others.

Cicadas are large insects that are known by their unique sound. Though many refer to them as locusts, they are not related to true locusts, which are grasshoppers. Cicadas are more closely related to leafhoppers and spittlebugs. Periodical cicadas only occur in North America, and they have regional broods that emerge in mass every 13 or 17 years.

As Joe Boggs with OSU Extension describes it, “The term ‘brood’ is applied to the massive synchronous appearances of periodical cicadas and Roman numerals are used to define both the year and the geographical distribution of each emergence. Thus far, researchers recognize 12 broods of the 17-year cicadas and 3 broods of 13-year cicadas in North America. Most broods are concentrated from the Mid-Atlantic states across to the eastern edge of the Great Plains. Brood X (10) of the 17-year periodical cicada is one of the largest based on geographical distribution. It will rise from beneath deciduous trees this spring in parts of Ohio as well as Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington D.C.”

Cicada eggs that were laid back in 2004 hatched that same year and became nymphs (immature forms of the cicada) that then borrowed deep into the soil and began feeding on plant roots. At the time of this writing, the nymphs are busy constructing mud tubes to the ground surface, often with “turrets” or little castles that extend above the ground. To some, they resemble so many tiny little bee hives. In places, they are so thick you can’t take a step without walking on one. The nymphs will emerge in the evening when the soil temperature is approximately 64 degrees Fahrenheit at eight inches deep. This is usually around Mother’s Day in our part of the world. These nymphs will climb onto nearby trees and shrubs or just about any other vertical surface to complete their last molt. If you want to impress all your friends and neighbors, the fancy word for this last molt is called ecdysis, pronounced ek-duh-sis. At this point, the adult cicada emerges from its exoskeleton, leaving behind an empty shell. They come out white in color but turn dark after about an hour. The adults may spend several days waiting for their exoskeleton to fully harden.

Cicada singing and reproduction will be covered in a later article, so I’ll close here with a story. As a child I attended summer camp one week each year for ten years or close to it. Each year we were coached on the dangers of black widow spiders, stinging caterpillars, sunburn, and dehydration. The many weeks spent at summer camp still stand out in my mind, but one particular year I recall quite vividly. We slept in the woods in what they called hogans. Picture a flat wood deck with steel hoops on it covered by a heavy green tarp. It essentially looked like a camouflage Quonset hut in the near-wilderness of Adams County. A couple of boys in another hogan were in the business of collecting all the cicada shells they could find, and by the end of the week they had a small mountain of shells underneath a cot. I can still see it like it was yesterday. Looking back, it had to be Brood XIV (14; a different brood than ours) of the 17-year cicadas and the year was 1991.

These cicadas only show up in our part of the world once every 17 years. If you have a place in your yard or woods that hasn’t been disturbed since 2004, get out and go hunt for some little mud chimneys. Look at it this way: the coming invasion of a gazillion cicadas might be better than anything that came our way in the spring of 2020.

The Preble Soil and Water Conservation District is available to answer any of your natural resources-related questions. You can reach the office five days a week at 937-456-5159. Thanks to Joe Boggs with OSU Extension for the information contained in this article.

By BJ Price

Preble SWCD