Summer of '21, cicada-style

·5 min read

Jun. 26—A droning buzz cut emanated from the woods north of our house.

A lone vacant shell clung to the sidewalk.

Our dog nabbed a couple of them as I walked her down the road.

Otherwise, we saw few signs of the highly anticipated Brood X cicadas last month in Prairieton. Did those flying insects sleep through their mysterious 17-year internal alarm clock?

Then, my wife and I took a day trip to Bloomington and wound up walking through the Indiana University campus to see the statue of Hoosier war correspondent Ernie Pyle outside Franklin Hall. Cicadas were respectful enough to leave Ernie's bronze likeness alone, but covered everything else — the walking paths, tree trunks and leaves, the ground, stone benches, sign posts.

They looked so at home, I expected to see some wearing red sweaters. Instead, only the bugs' eyes were red. They came in all forms of metamorphosis, some molting before our blue and brown human eyes. The exoskeletons they shed in becoming adults, primed for mating, littered the base of old trees through the scenic campus.

Cicada-mania was indeed valid.

Tribune-Star readers attested to their reality, relaying photographs and details.

Some areas experienced the cicadas sooner than others, though.

Cool weather last month likely delayed the cicadas' emergence. Periodic cicadas don't tunnel out of the soil until average ground temperatures reach 64 degrees, entomologists say. Some places reached that mark in mid-May, as anticipated. Others spots are just now seeing the cicadas emerge, said Tabby Flinn, agricultural and natural resources educator for Vigo County Purdue Extension Services.

"When it got cold, it got a little too cold for them," Flinn explained.

Readers noticed the geographic disparity of cicada sightings.

"I think the most interesting thing, to me, is how it has been an 'all or none' phenomenon," Nancy Padan wrote on June 9. "We have none on our property in southern Vigo County, while others are drowning in them."

The latter was case in northeastern Vigo County by early June. "They are very loud and everywhere," wrote reader Megan Bignell. "Walk through the yard, and you are sure to be hit by one. Kids are enjoying collecting all the skins they leave behind."

Brood X cicadas can number up to a million per acre. They emerge every 17 years in 15 states across the Eastern U.S.

After sucking on the roots of mature trees for 17 years, the nymphs start climbing up to the ground surface between mid-May and early June, usually. They molt, shed their shells, form a new exoskeleton and prepare to mate. The males buzz loudly — up to 100 decibels — to attract females, who soon lay eggs in tree twigs. The eggs fall back into the soil, forming new nymphs that start sucking roots. The adults cicadas die shortly after their big moment — five to six weeks of noisemaking and lovemaking.

Circle of life.

Flinn studied the mysterious creatures as a Purdue University student when they last appeared in Indiana in 2004. She remembers not being able to hear her mother on a phone call back then because of the noisy cicadas in the background. Flinn earned bachelor's and master's degrees in entomology, with a specialty in urban insect management.

"I've always thought the periodic cicadas were cool," she said.

Now, in 2021, Flinn gets to study their impact in a professional role. She doesn't have to look far. High concentrations of cicadas have shown up south of Clinton, around the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods campus, hilly areas of West Terre Haute, and Fowler Park in southern Vigo County. "They emerged early, and they were loud," Flinn said.

Places with old forest areas, unchanged by agriculture, tend to be cicada hotspots. Brown County State Park, a half-hour drive from Bloomington, is one of this year's go-to cicada locales. "That kind of seems like the epicenter," Flinn said.

Shakamak State Park near Jasonville had "a ton of cicadas" during an early June 4-H camp, said Brooke Stefancik, the agriculture and 4-H youth development educator for the Sullivan County Purdue Extension. "The cicadas definitely added a different ambiance to camp with their constant roar around the park," Stefancik said.

Cicadas emerged three weeks ago around the town of Fairbanks, near the Wabash River, Stefancik said, and are still being heard.

In Vigo County, they showed up around the historic Markle House and Sulfur Springs Cemetery during the Trees Inc. organization's tree-measuring outing in late May. "There were cicadas, and their shells were everywhere at the cemetery," wrote Trees Inc. member Mary Beth Eberwein.

The insects started popping up in western Vigo County in mid-May, Trib-Star reader Chris Tewell reported. "Some of the birds are having a feast," Tewell wrote then.

North Terre Haute resident Lesley Bricker spotted cicadas around that community more than a month ago.

"It looked like the ground was moving, because it was," Bricker wrote on June 11. "The majority seemed to come up near a very large and old beech tree. As the days went on, more and more cicadas emerged, covering light posts, trees, flowers and lawn furniture. The birds and turtles are enjoying the cicada feast. Even my dogs like to eat them.

"They seem to come out of the ground more at night," Bricker added. "And as the days go on, the sound they make has become louder and louder. It sounds like the old sci-fi movies with the flying-saucer sound effects."

Flinn and the Purdue Extension Service have been working to educate the public on the cicadas' background and science. Ideally, the youngest members of the general public — kids — will fondly remember the summer of 2021 cicadas.

"Hopefully, they've had a positive experience with them," Flinn said, "and they will look forward to seeing them in another 17 years."

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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