Brood XIV

17-year cicada

Walking into the house after dark, I snap on the light and notice a thumb-sized lump under my shirt, right above my navel. It’s moving, though I don’t feel anything. I lift the shirt and there, clinging to the other side of the green cotton, is a periodical cicada. I pull it off, carry it outside and give it a toss. A dry rattle as it flutters off into the night. Maybe those strange red eyes can see in the dark.

For seventeen years — an eternity for most insects — they’ve been living completely in the dark, the cicadas of Brood XIV. Silent, wingless, and pale as ghosts they have burrowed from root to root, sucking on the milk of trees. Then in late April they began to experience subtle changes in their bodies, growing new muscles, and feeling a sudden strong urge to burrow upwards. Rather than push the dirt behind them like a mole or pass it through their bodies like a worm, their powerful forelegs pushed and compacted the newly thawed earth into half-inch cylinders as they climbed.

They dug to within an inch or less of the surface, making visible mounds in the mud and leaf duff in wetter areas. Skunks and other predators dug some of them up, and for weeks we were puzzled by what turned out to be dried sections of their bore-holes scattered all over our trails. My mother took to collecting these strange artifacts in a shoebox in her study; we couldn’t remember ever seeing anything like it. If we weren’t such rationalists, we might’ve thought the Little People were taking a crash course in pottery.

periodical cicada tubes

The nymphs sat in their burrows and waited for the onset of warm nights, a wait that might have lasted only a couple weeks some years, but this year — THE year, as far as they were concerned — it was closer to six. Four days ago I saw my first red-eyed cicada on a dead raspberry cane and realized that the emergence had begun.

Yesterday — the morning after I carried a cicada in under my shirt — I waded slowly through the thick air of our first heat wave since last April, up to the crest of the ridge above my house and southwest along the trail. It sounded as if our closest neighbor in the valley were operating some kind of machinery, I thought, but couldn’t quite figure out what — an eerie metallic buzz. Then I realized: it’s them. They’re here! I picked my way down to where the slope turned steep, but still the sound was below me, coming from an open area that had been logged about a decade before. The sunny, southeast exposure must have led the cicadas there to emerge earlier than those elsewhere on the mountain.

It occurred to me that there might be some activity on the powerline right-of way. I always associate powerlines with cicadas, in part because their calls have such an electronic quality. But in fact because the powerline opening is several degrees warmer than the surrounding woods, the night before last had indeed been a scene of mass ecdysis there, the nymphs emerging from their burrows, crawling a foot or two up into the vegetation, and climbing right out of the center of their wingless thoraces. By dawn, all would’ve darkened from white to bluish gray with red-veined wings. When I arrived on the scene at mid-morning, nearly every lowbush blueberry and scrub oak shrub was dotted with adult cicadas, and some of them were beginning to take short, clumsy flights, like remote-controlled toy airplanes piloted by inexperienced hands.

I found one two-foot-tall scrub oak as heavily ornamented as a Christmas tree. When I squatted with my camera for a closer look, I noticed the translucent brown larval shells, or exuviae, clinging to the undersides of the leaves. I couldn’t help thinking that whatever whacked-out evangelical preacher first dreamed up that Rapture business must’ve witnessed a 17-year cicada emergence.

cicada exuviae

By this afternoon, I was beginning to hear them from the treetops right outside my door. I walked back up to the powerline to see if I could find any singing at close enough range to film, but they’d all moved on — up into the treetops, I suppose. I also noticed, however, an alarming number of half-inch-diameter holes stippling the ground almost everywhere in the woods — there must be few species of native trees they don’t patronize. The ecological consequences of their aeration of the forest soil must be immense.

Things are going to get pretty loud here in the coming days, I think. As the aforelinked webpage puts it, “Soon after emerging, males begin their constant ‘singing’ while females remain silent. The sound made by adult males is sometimes haunting and eerie.”

After around ten days of cacophony and orgiastic mayhem, the females will begin laying their eggs and the next cycle of this longest-lived of North American insects will begin. Rather than sow their seeds in the earth, as one might expect, they instead plant them in the treetops, long ovipositors slicing like harrow blades into the twigs of trees and shrubs from nearly 80 different species. Each female lays some two dozen eggs per slit, and repeats the process until all her 400-600 eggs are gone. Where two weeks before, the adult cicadas emerged from slits in the backs of their former selves, now they insert their future offspring into slits cut into what will become their nurse-trees.

The true opposite of ecdysis, I suppose, is death, and a month from now the ground should be littered with cicada carcasses. By the time the white, ant-sized cicadas hatch in late August and drop to the ground, most traces of their parents should be gone.

Needless to say, birds, squirrels, and virtually every other macrofaunal inhabitant of the forest will have a heyday, feasting on this almost literal fat of the land. Early European settlers in eastern North America marvelled at the teeming wildlife, almost all of which have by now been sadly diminished, if not persecuted to extinction, with the exception of a few superabundant pest species such as tent caterpillars and white-tailed deer. The mass emergence of the 17-year cicadas is one of the last great spectacles of its kind.

Ending expanded 6/8/08; cross-posted to the Plummer’s Hollow blog. For more on periodical cicadas — much, much more — see the Cicada Mania blog. For an MP3 of the singing, go here. And since I was just talking about nature documentaries yesterday, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fine film “Return of the 17 Year Cicadas” on YouTube.

16 Replies to “Brood XIV”

  1. Gravity. “Hatching occurs six to seven weeks after egg laying, and the white, antlike nymphs work their way out of the slits and drop to the ground where they enter the soil.” (Op. cit.)

    UPDATE (6/8, 8:55am): Sorry, I did give the end of the story short shrift last night; I’ve expanded it now. Thanks for the prod.

  2. I was born the year of the “17-year locust” as we always called them, so I count time by their appearances. During this, their third cycle in my lifetime, I am across the country, so it’s nice to see their ugly faces here.

  3. dale – Thanks. I guess this post is testimony to the importance of “getting it down,” despite the energy-sapping heat and humidity. I probably wouldn’t have thought nearly as deeply about 17-year cicadas otherwise.

    Rose – Hi! That’s a very interesting way of measuring your life. And 17 is kind of a threshold age in our society, isn’t it? The last year of youth. (Though 51 seems fairly young to me now, too.)

    I was reading online that some people examine the patterns of the veins on their wings for portents of war and peace, but I’m not sure I like reducing such an awe-inspiring natural occurrence to an augury of human fortunes.

  4. They are earlier here in central KY, the singing seems to have peaked a couple of days ago. The singing dies down a bit in mid-afternoon, but the air is full of females searching out a good branch to lay eggs in. I had high hopes for stonefruit this year, peaches and plums. Due to last year’s April freeze, there was no fruit, and I had hoped, fewer Plum Curculio that have denied me fruit in past years. Alas, fruit-laden peach branches are already browning and breaking off. sigh. rb

  5. Hi marja-leena – Glad you found this interesting. Keep in mind that these are quite different – in a seperate genus – from the annual or dog-day cicadas, which are probably what most people have in mind when they talk about cicadas.

    arby – Thanks for the informative comment. Sorry to hear about the impact on your plums and especially peaches (one of my favorite fruits). That Cicada Mania site advises trying to spray them off of small trees and shrubs with a garden hose; I don’t know if that would work or not. Sounds like it may be a little too late for that in any case.

  6. What a spectacular sight that 17-year cicada is. I haven’t seen one in so long, I had nearly forgotten. I lived in New Jersey for the first 18 years of my life, and I remember the cicada, and all the talk one year about how they only showed up every 17 years. It was summertime, and one landed on me while I was getting ready to dive into our backyard pool. It was the biggest flying insect I had ever seen, and to have it land on me was the ultimate teenager’s nightmare! I have to say, though, it’s really fantastic to see one again here, dave. You remind me why blogging is the coolest thing. Great post.

  7. That guy’s gorgeous! I haven’t seen cicadas here yet, but when I was a kid in New York (not the city yet; Long Island) there were a few years where they were hopping all over the place. Definitely a different species than yours, as ours were iridescent green, with (IIRC) green eyes. Not very bright, either — I once saw one hopping along the ground at speed, straight into the trunk of a tree, where it bounced off, stunned.

    (Come to think of it, about every three years there, we had a plague of something — cicadas, slugs, frogs, moss, etc.)

  8. bev – Thanks; glad you liked. A year from now, you’ll be able to read a much fuller and better researched account at my mother’s site when we post her Game News column for June. She’s planning to track down the Penn State scientist who posted the photo of the bore holes and see what else she can find out about them.

    robin – That does sound sort of traumatic, I guess, for a certain kind of teenager. It’s cool, though, the way periodical cicadas prompt an intrusion of wonder into everyday conversations – it beats talking about the weather! Thanks for your kind words about the post.

    Rurality – Good point. Let’s start saying it!

    David – Did your boyhood cicadas look like this?

    Cicadas are notoriously clumsy fliers regardless of the species – “like little kamikazes,” as a fellow I was talking to today put it.

  9. Hmm… The black-and-red markings just look wrong, and I think ours had somewhat rounder fronts. Also, they definitely didn’t show up in similar numbers each year — some years there were barely any, some years they were all over. Possibly they were 7- or 13- year cicadas, which also have varying brood sizes. (There are also 3-year cicadas, but ours weren’t that regular.)

    Did you know that individual cicadas occasionally add a year to their cycle, thus transferring to the next brood? I assume that helps repopulate a brood that gets really clobbered by the usual hazards.

  10. Once my beloved dog, Flannery, came running into the house, very excited, dashing back and forth… and buzzing loudly! Turns out she had a live cicada held gently (she was a Labrador Retriever) in her mouth, and she found a way to have a whole lot of fun with it…

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