Those who have lived through a cicada invasion never forget one thing: the buzzing. Residents of places hit with the pests describe the sound as everything from a roar to a hiss to a whisper. In 2004, one Arlington resident told the Washington Post that it sounded like a spaceship coming in.
“You ever watch that old Star Trek episode where they leave their phasers on and try to melt something? That’s what it sounds like to me.”
Such will be the soundtrack of Americans in some parts of Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia next month. A cicada invasion will occur when one of the largest broods — cicadas who hatch together — emerges after spending 17 years in the ground feeding off tree sap. Experts estimate billions of them will spread across the United States, with up to 1.5 million hitting certain communities, reported Cicada Mania.
Though this cicada invasion may conjure of images of Biblical plagues, even the areas hit hardest don’t need to panic about anything more than the inconvenience — and perhaps disgust — of living alongside the creatures. Cicadas do not bite, sting, or even chew, so their level of danger as a pest is relatively low. They also provide a plentiful food source for predators who temporarily can’t keep up with the high concentration of their prey, National Pest Management Director of Technical Services Jim Fredericks told Live Science.
“Bird species, raccoons, possums, foxes and whatever can get their mouths on these things, can eat their fill and have no impact on the population.”
The proliferation of cicadas will last for roughly three weeks, though its hard to pinpoint exactly when the buzzing will cease. Not only is the sound the most memorable of the invasions, but it’s also arguably the most vital to the process itself. Male cicadas emit noise in order to attract a mate to produce offspring before dying. It’s a desperate call for them to serve the one purpose they’ve been waiting 17 years in the ground to fulfill. This brood, comprised of three different species of cicadas, has been plotting its invasion since 1999.
Once a female cicada lays her eggs, usually in a slit in a tree branch, the process begins anew. Once eggs hatch, larvae falls out of the tree and burrows into the ground to start preparing for its moment in the sun. In the case of this brood, that means 17 years later; but for others it can be 13 or even less. People just tend to notice the larger broods that spend more time in the ground.
Chris Hartley, an entomologist at the Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House of the Missouri Botanical Garden, told Live Science that those cycles seem to have something to do with a DNA — a genetic schedule for when cicadas will begin their invasion.
“In the case of these cicadas, they are triggered to not produce the hormones essential for becoming an adult until those numbers of years have passed. It’s all in their genes and their development, and that is the adaptation that they have acquired to achieve these mass emergences.”
While some dread the cicada invasion, others embrace it as an opportunity to learn about the insects. Wendy Weirich, director of Outdoor Experiences for the Cleveland Metroparks, told the Plain Dealer that the local community will be offering several classes to help locals better understand how and why the event occurs.
“It’s going to be a wild ride. t’s like Rip Van Winkle for insects.”
[Image via Alex Wong/Getty Images]