Billions of sex-starved cicadas set to invade the U.S. East Coast

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Anyone living along the east coast of Canada and the United States, from Nova Scotia down to North Carolina, better be ready for an invasion of noisy, sex-crazed teenagers. I'm not talking about summer vacation, or the concert of some teen singing idol. No, this is the invasion of Brood II, when billions of red-eyed, black-bodied cicadas will emerge from the ground after 17 years, to eat, make a lot of noise, and have a lot of sex.

Cicadas are large, winged insects, about 2-5 cm long when fully-grown, that most people have probably heard more than they've seen. This is because they usually sit up in trees, out of sight, but the males emit a loud buzzing/hissing 'song', which sounds a bit like a 'white-noise' machine, when they are trying to attract a mate.

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The ones that are preparing to emerge in droves belong to a type of 'periodic cicada' called the Magicicada. They're native to the eastern United States, and are typically seen from Connecticut to North Carolina.

However, according to Andrew Hebda, a curator of zoology for the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History, it appears as though regions of Nova Scotia may see them as well. He told CBC News that regions around Halifax, Yarmouth, the Annapolis Valley, and even in Cape Breton Island may see them emerging this year, and that they will be making a lot of noise.

"The guys are out there advertising for females and what we'll be hearing is this very loud buzzing sound, very prolonged sound, actually a courting call, they'll be moving the little timbales on the sides of their bodies calling for any mate that's nearby," Hebra said in an interview with CBC News.

These Magicicadas have a 13- to 17-year life cycle, and each year, another batch of these emerges from the ground, and each batch is called a 'brood'. The last time Brood II was seen was in 1996, when they burrowed out of the ground, spent the next few weeks mating, and then died. The eggs they laid took a few months to hatch, after which the 'newborns' burrowed under the ground, and then stayed there, feeding off of roots until it was their turn to emerge.

And when they do emerge, it will be by the billions. Current estimates put their numbers at around 30 billion, but according the Associated Press, Gary Hevel, a researcher at the Smithsonian, thinks the tally could be closer to 1 trillion.

Even though these insects may seem pretty creepy, they're harmless to people and animals. There have, apparently, been a few rare cases when a cicada has mistaken someone's arm for a tree branch and stuck its proboscis in to try and get sap, but although it's painful, it isn't dangerous.

"It's not like these hordes of cicadas suck blood or zombify people," May Berenbaum, a University of Illinois entomologist, told the Associated Press.

Basically, they're big, noisy and creepy, but they're nothing to worry about. Seeing them will be pretty impressive, though.

"There will be some places where it's wall-to-wall cicadas," said University of Maryland entomologist Mike Raupp, according to the Associated Press article.

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Although we certainly have cicadas here in Canada, mostly seen in British Columbia and southern Ontario, normally we don't see any of these Magicicada broods, so this seems to be a rare event in Nova Scotia. Whether that's just a fluke of nature, or a product of climate change, is unsure, but if you live anywhere on the East Coast, it might be a good idea to invest in some earplugs.

(Images courtesy: Reuters, cicadas.info)

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