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The Cicadas Are Coming!

By Lindsay Renick Mayer

Sometime soon, very soon, thousands of small periodic cicada nymphs will be pushing their way up out of the ground across the east coast, taking over our cities, our homes and our lives in a style befitting Alfred Hitchcock. Dogs will be eating them, kids will be racing them, and drivers will quickly (or, perhaps, never) become accustomed to the crunch under their wheels.

It is the great #Swarmageddon of 2013. And here in The Nature Conservancy’s Maryland/DC and Virginia chapters, we can’t wait.

Deborah Landau, our resident entomologist, took some time to explain why east coast residents should celebrate this natural phenomenon and pause to marvel at its wonder … while watching their step.

7. Fight that phobia fast.  “For anyone afraid of insects, this is a wonderful opportunity to get over a phobia,” Landau says. The largest populations in our region appear to be in northern and central Virginia and southern Maryland. But they’ll extend from Georgia to Connecticut. The insects have lived as larvae (or grubs) for 17 years underground. They’ll spend about a month above ground and will lay their eggs in tree stems and twigs before dying. “Just take a deep breath and learn that sometimes you have to deal with nature, you have to put up with her,” Landau says. “It’s one of those things you have no control over. Don’t try to spray them. It’s pointless to try to kill them.”

6. Enjoy the summer symphony.  Cicadas are a common summer sound, but this year they will be especially deafening. “They’ll be a constant background noise, a sound wave that pulses,” Landau says. The males buzz at 17 kHz as they attempt to attract mates with a sound that reminds people of the season of ice cream trucks, beaches, and vacation.

5. Be a witness to the miracle of life. After the nymphs crawl out of the ground, they’re going to be ready to shed their 17-year-old selves. “When you first see them, they’re white because they have no melanin and they haven’t hardened,” Landau says. “That’s when they’re soft and extremely vulnerable. It’s a great opportunity to sit and watch them darken in the sunlight.” The shells the cicadas leave behind tell their story, preserving the space where their legs and eyes once were and the split down the back from where they emerged. “It’s neat, it’s cool, it’s just really fascinating,” Landau says.

4. They won’t (necessarily) hitch a ride. The cicadas, which are referred to as Brood II to distinguish them from the 15 other broods of periodical cicadas that frequent this region during other years, will spend most of their time on the ground and crawling up trees, rather than on your car, bike, or on you. They won’t be crawling up the aluminum siding of your house, either. “But if you have a brick house or screen doors, they’ll be able to get a good grip,” Landau says. Because the cicadas live in the ground as larvae or grubs, communities that have been developed in the last 17 years therefore disrupting the soil will likely see fewer of the insects. In addition, these cicadas aren’t poisonous or toxic and are different from other cicada species because they won’t fly away to avoid you. “For these cicadas, their entire defense is that they’re born en masse and are less likely to be picked off,” Landau says. “So they don’t fly away. You can even pick them up. They’re a really easy insect to handle.”

3. The bird baby boom. Birds and other wildlife will have an ample source of food this year. “The birds will have a banner year,” Landau says. “They’ll have plenty to feed their chicks. So even if we’re not enjoying it, wildlife is going to love it. Raccoons, birds, everyone is going to have a bellyful.”

2. The children born in 2013 will be preparing to graduate high school when these cicadas return. It may be more than a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness the influx of insects, but it’s still rare and these cicadas aren’t like all the rest. They’re small and black with red eyes, rather than big and brown with amber eyes. And they have a neat natural story to tell. “They’ve been in the ground below us all of this time,” Landau says. “They may look like they’re in their early stages of life when they first emerge, but these are actually old guys. We’ll only have about a month with them and then we have to wait 17 more years to see their offspring.”

1. They help take care of all of us. When the insects lay their eggs, they lay them in tree stems and twigs. It seems like they’ll cause some damage, but this is as natural as a periodic hurricane or occasional tornado. “The trees can certainly handle this every 13 or 17 years,” Landau says. “It actually opens up the forest and provides some natural pruning of the woods. Natural phenomena that create gaps for light in the forest are good. This is a classic periodic disturbance that the forest has evolved with.” The forests that the cicadas are pruning are the same forests that help ensure that we have clean drinking water and other important ecosystem services.

This month be sure to tweet your Maryland, DC and Virginia #Swarmaggedon questions, photos and stories at us at @Nature_DCMDVA.

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