A week ago, walking through the woods, I saw thousands of bore holes in the ground. Occasionally, the hard shells of bugs, stinky exoskeletons I had not seen before, were hanging from the trunks of nearby trees. I did not give it much thought but I was intrigued. What could it be?
I got my answer two days ago when I woke up to the deafening sound of a business fire alarm amplified to annoying levels, coming from the dense woods. Was someone walking and playing the soundtrack of a scary sci-fi movie? It was the chorus of male cicadas, invading the surrounding habitat and looking for mates.
Cicadas are in a hurry because they only live 4-6 weeks. They’ve been living underground attached to the roots of trees for the last 17 years, sucking on root sap, feeling any changes in the tree’s nutrients and hormones, waiting for the right moment to crawl out of the ground when soil reaches 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
To attract females as far away as a mile, males vibrate white plates called tymbals on either side of their abdomen. The constant chirping sound coming from the forest resonates to deafening levels, measuring as high as 92 decibels.
Every seventeen years this harmless insect emerges in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York. Cicada nymphs, dormant in the ground underneath miles of new pavement and construction that took place since 1996, are certainly out of luck.
Michael Raupp, Professor of Entomology at the University of Maryland, counted 6 cicadas bore holes per square foot in North Carolina, estimating a population of 150 million per square mile, roughly exceeding twice the human population on the East Coast.
These nymphs were hatched in 1996, long before we were able to share their pictures on social websites. They shed their exoskeletons after crawling from the ground and spend about three weeks as adults with red eyes, mating and laying eggs in tree branches. The newly hatched brood, expected to number 30 billion, will burrow into the ground for 17 years of adolescence, until 2030 to be exact.
The winged insects can fly – several who were in my garage took off when I touched them. Scientists say that males can reproduce with as many females as possible but the females only mate once. Their sustenance during the 4-6 week period is the sap of trees. After their life cycle ends, corpses litter the ground, to the delight of the food chain.
Entomologists study the variables and boundaries of cicada emergence from the ground. Cicadas can be a protein-rich meal. I leave it up to Isa Betancourt, entomologist at Drexel University, who called the bugs “the shrimp of the land,” to enjoy this bizarre delicacy. I am not at all surprised that the University of Maryland established a group called “Cicadamaniacs” who has cobbled a cookbook with American sounding recipes incorporating cicadas as the main ingredient.