It’s Cicada Season

I really enjoyed this story from the News and Record on our insect friends, the cicadas.  Their singing is one of the great pleasures of my summer evenings.

Most of the time, the cicadas we happen upon around Greensboro, on our walks and hikes, are what are known as “annual cicadas.”  That means, of course, that we see them each year — usually during the dog days of July and August, as the News and Record article points out. 

But there are also “periodical cicadas,” whose broods emerge only every 13 or 17 years.  Most cicada species take a number of years to grow and mature underground before emerging as adults.  The thing about the periodical cicadas is that their development is synchronized so that all members of a given population emerge as adults at once.  Thus, during an outbreak, the confines of a comparatively small neighborhood can be literally inundated with thousands of these strange creatures. 

Periodical cicadas look just like annual cicadas (at least, to my untrained eye), except their wings, body parts, and antenna are trimmed in orange or yellow (instead of the annuals’ green) and their eyes are bright red.  To me, they have an otherworldly appearance (especially owing to the color of their eyes) and make me think of Martians from some sort of 1950s style, sci-fi flick.

I’ll never forget my first encounter with the periodical cicadas.  I was fifteen years old (1974), then living in Lenoir, North Carolina, and a friend of mine invited me to take a bike trip about ten miles or so out-of-town to an area of Caldwell County known as Mulberry. 

I suppose we were about halfway to our destination (quite rural, after we left the fringes of town) when we began to hear a very strange noise.  Continuing my 1950s sci-fi flick Martians metaphor, I think I’d compare it to the noise from a giant hovering spaceship.  And the further we went on towards Mulberry, the louder it became (according to this Wikipedia page on cicadas, the name cicada is actually Latin for “buzzer”). 

Then, along the sides of a dirt road, I began to notice large, black flying insects and quickly realized they were literally all over the place — on bushes, weeds, blades of grass, tree trunks, in the air.  At last, my friend Jon and I realized what accounted for the noise.

Being an avid insect collector, I naturally had some specimen jars in my backpack for our “expedition” to Mulberry.  As I look back upon it now, I have to admire Jon’s patience as I collected dozens and dozens of these roadside cicadas to take home.

I’ve never forgotten that bike trip, always remembering it as one of the highlights of my youth.  Above all, I’ve always remembered the cicadas, and when I’ve since then heard about outbreaks of periodical cicadas, I’ve tried to make time to seek them out — and thus revisit a cherished little part of my past.

Last year (2008), for example, I learned of an outbreak in the vicinity of Moravian Falls in Wilkes County and photographed as well as collected quite a number of specimens along a roadside just off of Highway 421.  And, in 1996, back when I was just wrapping up my classwork toward my MLIS, I heard about an appearance of cicadas in Rockingham County.  I think I’ve still got some of those preserved in a jar of alcohol.

Entomologists actually use the term “brood” to describe what I’ve called outbreaks or populations of cicadas.  The ones I saw in 1974 and 2008 both turn out to be part of Brood XIV, a seventeen-year brood, so some of the cicadas I saw in 2008 may well have been the grandchildren of those from 1974.  The cicadas which appeared in Rockingham County in 1996, however, were of Brood II (also a seventeen-year brood), and I’m looking forward to their return in 2013.               

If you’d like to learn more about cicadas, here’s a great cicada webpage.  And here’s another associated with the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, from which I obtained the map above.

Alas, I only found one juvenile work on cicadas in Greensboro Public Library’s collection:  Cicadas and Aphids:  What They Have in Common by Sara Swan Miller.  However, we have plenty of general works on insects which would have information on cicadas. 

You can also read more about cicadas in Science Online, and you should be able to find some articles on them in the NCLive network of databases.

UPDATE:  Here’s a link to some photographs — taken by Greensboro Public Library’s very own Tommy Joseph — of this year’s emergence of 13 year cicadas here in Greensboro.


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