The cicadas are coming: How to deal with the emergence of Brood X

Patrick Kernan, The Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
·5 min read

Apr. 17—In a few short weeks, invaders will descend, not only in our part of the state but up and down the eastern seaboard.

Well, perhaps "ascend" is a better word, since these invaders are coming from the depths of the earth, even if they look like they're coming from Mars.

Yes, it's almost time for the periodical cicadas to make their once-every-17-years appearance, where they will emerge from the ground, scream, mate and die over the course of a few weeks. And while these noisy insects may look weird and maybe even a little creepy, an interview this week with Wilkes University's Dr. William Biggers, an associate biology professor with an expertise in invertebrate biology, revealed that the bugs are not only totally harmless but incredibly interesting.

"I would expect to see a lot of them," Biggers said.

This could be the understatement of the year, of course, with some scientists suggesting that we'll see billions of the bugs.

Biggers said that the group of cicadas that we'll see emerge this year is called the "Great Eastern Brood," and some scientists refer to it as "Brood X" (read as "Brood 10, as opposed to the significantly cooler sounding alternative) as it is the 10th of about 15 large groups of the insects in North America.

"A brood is when you have different batches of cicadas that all emerge at around the same time," Biggers explained. And Biggers said that this brood is by far the largest, covering a large portion of the Northeastern United States.

Biggers explained the general life-cycle of these periodical cicadas. The bulk of their life — just a bit less than 17 years — is spent underground. But they aren't hibernating down there.

"The cicadas don't go dormant underground," he said. "They're actively feeding and creating tunnels."

Biggers said that, over the course of 17 years, the cicada nymphs (the word for the early stages of their life) dig around, mostly eating the sap that comes from the roots of bushes and other plants. The nymphs have an incredibly slow growth rate, occasionally shedding their exoskeleton when they outgrow it.

Then, in the spring of the nymphs' 17th year underground, Biggers said they get driven to the surface once the ground temperature reaches about 64 degrees. This will probably happen in the final weeks of April or the early weeks of May. They undergo a final metamorphosis, sprouting wings which they hadn't needed while living underground.

That's when things get noisy.

Once above ground, Biggers said the male members of the species use special muscles in their abdomen called "timbals," which they vibrate quickly to make the incredibly loud noise.

Why do they do that, though? Biggers said the loud noise attracts females.

Like most 17-year-olds, it turns out cicadas are mostly just interested in sex.

But the noise is seriously loud; Biggers estimated that the sound of a single cicada is probably audible from about half a mile away. Of course, though, the problem is there's probably another cicada over there, too.

So what do we do with the cicadas? Biggers' suggestion is a fairly simple one: Try to ignore them as much as possible because they're totally harmless and good for the environment, even if they're annoying.

"As far as ecology goes, they aerate the soil. They make holes in the ground, so they're beneficial for lawns," he said. "And they help prune the trees a bit. They're not like locusts, that will just consume everything."

Biggers also said that many animals will be having the feast of their furry little lives.

"They provide food for different animals, like birds and squirrels," he said. "A lot of animals will actually change their foraging habits to take advantage of them."

(Biggers said that even humans can eat them, saying that you can actually find recipes for them online, but the Times Leader can't vouch for how tasty they are.)

For this reason alone, he said it's very important to not use insecticides to try to kill cicadas.

"Everyone is going to try to do it, but the insecticides will kill the cicadas and other animals that eat them could be harmed," he said. "It could kill birds, squirrels and chipmunks."

Instead, he said recommended using netting to keep the bugs off things, and brooms and garden hoses to remove them from unwanted places.

Ultimately, though, Biggers said it's important to remember that the cicadas, while annoying, are only temporary.

"They might be annoying, but just try to remember that they're just going to be here around five or six weeks," he said.

In that time, the insects will mate, and the females will use a special organ called an ovipositor to inject their very small eggs into trees. Once the eggs hatch, the newly-born nymphs will travel to the ground, bury themselves and wait for their reappearance until 2038.

After the adults mate, they die, and Biggers said that their carcass are filled with nutrients that will act as natural fertilizers for plants.

Biggers said that those who are interested could possibly transform the cicada times from an annoying time to an educational one.

"Since they just come out every 17 years, this will be an excellent opportunity for middle schools, grade schools, and even high schools to teach the students about the life-cycles of insects," he said. "I think the schools can take advantage of this and teach kids to be environmentally conscious."

Biggers said that the cicadas' disposition makes this easy, since they're incredibly docile.

"They don't bite or anything; they're harmless," he said. "You can pick them up."

In fact, since this is the first time the Great Eastern Brood emerges since the explosion of internet access over the past few years, Biggers said there are actually apps you can download where you can report where you've seen cicadas, and the data will help insect researchers track the spread of the brood.

In the end, though, Biggers said that the periodical cicadas, alternatively strange and fascinating, will just be a brief part of our year and they should mostly be ignored, because they're just trying to fulfill their biological needs.

"They're mostly friendly and mostly interested in mating," he said. "Their whole thing in life is to find a mate."