New Englanders: Travel to NY or NJ to Enjoy the Cicadas or Wait Until 2038

Terianne Falcone

Sex, music, and "dancing" -- the cicadas are having a party.

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Red-eyed 17 year oldImage by Pexels from Pixabay

George W. Bush was still President. Ben Affleck and JLo were together (the first time). People were at the movie theatre laughing at Dodge Ball with Vince Vaughn and Ben Siller. Beyonce' jump-started her solo career with the hit, Naughty Girl, and the European Union accepted ten new members.

The year was 2004 and that had been the last time anyone saw Brood X of the cicada world. And if you don't see, or hear or read or watch about them now -- you'll have to wait until 2038.

And who knows what Beyonce will be doing by then.

Cicadas can be found all over the world but the periodical breeds are native only to North America. They are currently emerging, flying around, climbing up trees, mating, dropping eggs, and dying in the following states: Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington D.C.

Oh, and I neglected to say that, of course, they are "singing" -- i.e. making lots of noise -- in all those 15 states on the east coast.

Alas, those of us in New England would have to travel to New York or New Jersey to experience them live but it still is fun to follow along with what's going on with this peculiar species and particular Brood X. (By the way, the "X" is not mysterious; it means "ten" in Roman numerals)

Some have said that the sound is like standing next to a gas-powered lawnmower. I grew up near New York City, so cicada noises were just part of the summer environment. I'd say the lawnmower analogy is dead-on.

What exactly makes the critters so noisy?

When the soil temperature is 64 degrees, billions, maybe trillions of cicadas emerge from their 17-year "hibernation." As we learned in biology, all life is designed to propagate the species. Meaning of course that cicadas are compelled to mate. The male cicadas attract the ladies by "singing" aka making lots of noise. (In our species, we call it "serenading.") In fact, sometimes a group of males sings together (not exactly a barbershop quartet but you get the idea) to increase the volume (as if!) and attract their potential matches.

The sound is created by the "tymbals" of a cicada which are located on the sides of the lower abdomen. These tymbals are a complex membrane with thin portions and thickened "ribs." While most sound-producing insects "stridulate" (i.e. strum, rub one part against another), tymbals vibrate at lightning speed (not literally), and the sound is amplified by the enlarged chambers of the cicada's own body. (Like an opera singer.) Their cacophonic melodies can reach decibels of 90 and higher. And yes, they are one of the loudest insects.

Jenna Jadin, an entomologist at the University of Maryland compares their singing to human mating rituals.

"It's like a bunch of guys at a frat party, they're all singing[...]some cheesy party song, and then the college sophomore girl sees the guy and she winks at him, and so that's the female cicada's click."

After their roll in the hay, the females make slits in trees and other plants to lay eggs. Sometimes they simply drop the eggs to the ground. The adults hang out a few more weeks, while more cicadas emerge and come to the party. The festivities end with piles and patches of dead adult cicadas and molted exoskeletons. For the next 17 years, the descendants, the larvae, go underground where they will be feeding on plant fluid, growing and molting, and getting ready for their five-week party that starts in 17 years. Sing, fly, sex and death.

There are two aspects of Brood X of 2021 that stand out.

First of all, a fungus called Massospora cicadina has been infecting some Brood X cicadas. The chemicals in the fungus are like hallucinogens and create a strange outcome, according to Gene Kritsky, a cicada expert from the Mount St. Joseph University in Ohio in an interview with NJMedia.

“It causes their butts to fall off,” he said. He explained that the fungus attacks only males, making their butts, including genitalia, fall off. The assault occurs immediately as they emerge from the ground making them drugged up, sex-crazed, and apparently, buttless. Despite now missing the vital body part to reproduce, the males keep trying over and over again. The fungus affects about 5-10% of the population.

The second thing that's particular to this year's breed, is that there is a lot of discussion around eating them. Jadin says they can make tasty treats.

".., if you've cooked them, they basically take on the flavor of whatever they're cooked in," Regarding her preference, she said, "I like them dipped in chocolate, I like them fried with batter, or just fried plain with a little bit of spice on them."

She's even written a cookbook called "Cicada-Liscious."

I might pass on that

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Lifespan of a cicada in picturesPhoto credit: United States Department of Agriculture / Public domain

*License to use Beyonce' photo

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I've moved back to this area after living abroad for 15 years. Both the landscape and the people are beautiful. People are kind to each other here in Northampton, MA. Thus, as I get reacquainted and go see all the cool stuff, I shall share with you! And, I have fun stories from abroad!

Northampton, MA
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