15 Things You Didn't Know About Cicadas

Cicada sits on a branch in natural habitat


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Cicada sits on a branch in natural habitat

Swarm Regards

More than 1 billion and possibly as many as trillions of cicadas are now emerging from their Rip Van Winkle-like slumber and pretty much take over 15 U.S. states with wild, mating-centric abandon. If the very thought makes you want to become a temporary agoraphobe, we feel you. Still, keeping in mind that knowledge can help conquer panic, we've put together some facts about cicadas that will hopefully help you stay calm and explore this once-or-twice-in-a-generation insect spectacle with more wonder than fear. 

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Cicada exuviae

There Are Thousands of Species of Cicada

There are actually around 3,000 to 4,000 species of cicadas around the world, but periodical cicadas — the kind that emerge from their buried-alive status every 13 or 17 years — are unique to the United States. In the U.S., there are around 190 species of cicada, according to Josh Matta, a senior biologist for Spectracide — but only seven of those, members of the genus Magicicada, belong to the periodical groups. 

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Locust Emergence Holes
Locust Emergence Holes by Greg Hume (CC BY-SA)

They Emerge From the Ground as Broods

When periodical cicadas emerge from the ground, they come up in what's called broods. The 2021 brood is known as Brood X and, though no one knows for sure how many there will be, some experts think they number in the trillions. There are, in total, about 15 active broods in the U.S., all named with roman numerals. Future broods — XIII and XIX, XIV, and I — are due to emerge in 2024, 2025, and 2029, respectively. 

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eastern united states

The 2021 Cicadas Will Emerge in 15 States

"Brood X refers to a specific cicada population that emerges in the eastern part of the United States," says Matta, specifically in Delaware, Illinois, Georgia, Indiana, New York, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Michigan, as well as in Washington, D.C.

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Cicada Swarm
Cicada Swarm by Greg Hume (CC BY-SA)

They Won't Emerge All at Once

No, the cicadas won't all come up from the ground at once, zombie apocalypse-style. Rather, the insects will emerge as the ground temperature in which they're buried has reached around 64 degrees Fahrenheit. That noted, experts say as many as 1.5 million cicadas can emerge in a 1-acre portion of land at once. Arising together as an enormous swarm might freak some people out, but keep in mind that it's a way for the cicadas to overwhelm and avoid predators — a technique, notes website EarthSky, known as predator satiation.

Cicada sits on a branch on a green background

No One Really Knows Why Periodical Cicadas Exist

Or why they only emerge in the eastern half of the United States, and nowhere else. Theories range from behavior involving predator avoidance to climate-related glacial cycles. In truth, no one has yet figured it out. "That's one of the big unanswered questions," John Cooley, an entomologist at the University of Connecticut, told National Geographic. "It's got to be something pretty special because it's rare." 

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A periodical cicada from brood X
A periodical cicada from brood X by Pmjacoby (CC BY-SA)

Brood X Will Look Distinctive

While cicadas come in many sizes and colors, the members of Brood X will have a unique appearance, says Matta. "They are brightly colored with a black body, orange wings, and red eyes. This is different from other types of cicadas, which are mostly green." They could be up to 1.5 inches in length, but take heart that they're not the Malaysian emperor cicada, which has a wingspan of around 8 (gulp) inches. 

Cicada - Brood X

Brood X Will Remain for About Four to Six Weeks

After the swarms surface from the ground, their main goal will be to mate, and this can happen in a time period anywhere from two to six weeks post-emergence, according to experts. "They spend most of their short life high in the tree canopy," notes Matta, where they will sing to attract mates. While Matta also says that the singing can depend on a number of factors, including the amount of sunlight and the temperature, Brood X cicadas, he explains, "typically sing between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m."

Maria Dorsey /istockphoto

They Will Be Loud

Once Brood X cicada males start singing, expect to want to close the windows or grab some earplugs. Their mating calls create a racket that can reach up to 100 decibels, which is about as loud as the noise coming from a lawnmower, a motorcycle, a jackhammer, or a garbage truck. In other words, cicada mating is loud.

Cicada mating

Some Are Jacked up on Amphetamine

About that mating ... A small percentage of the cicadas emerging this year will be infected by a fungus called Massospora, which can produce a compound called cathinone — the amphetamine  commonly known as "bath salts." The infection causes the insects to lose the lower part of their bodies, including their genitals. Ironically, it also pushes their reproductive desires into overdrive and they'll mate — or rather, attempt to mate — with a rather reckless abandon. 

The Airedaile Terrier dog eats the grass at the backyard
Alex Potemkin/istockphoto

Your Pets May Try to Eat Them

Cicada broods, despite their habit of predator satiation, will get eaten — notably by wildlife such as birds, squirrels, possums, chipmunks, birds, skunks, raccoons, snakes, ants, and frogs. Also, your dog, which might try to dig them up and eat them before they even emerge. The American Kennel Club notes that while a pup can likely safely eat a few cicadas, you should prevent pets from gorging on them like an all-you-can-eat insect buffet. Too many can be hard to digest and cause "serious consequences."

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fried bugs for dessert locust cockroach insects in Thailand

They're Edible

If you crinkled up your nose at the thought of your dog eating a cicada, know this: Humans have historically eaten them. "Both Native Americans and colonists enjoyed fried cicadas," reports The Clever Root Magazine. Often called "the shrimp of the land" due to their arthropod status, cicadas are considered nutritious: low in fat, high in protein. Some culinarily adventurous Americans are no doubt planning to indulge in them here soon, if articles at Food & Wine, NPR, and this 2004 cicada-centric cookbook titled "Cicada-Licious" available for free online, are any indication.

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Child Holding Cicada Slough

Cicadas Do Not Sting or Bite

Here's a good fact for the bee-and-wasp-fearing crowd — cicadas do not sting or bite. While their size and red eyes might make them look like they're up to no good, cicadas really are just trying to find a willing mate to make tiny cicadas nymphs with.

Cicada's the 17 year locusts

They're One of the Longest-Living Insects

Although they're not the longest living bugs — that honor goes to splendour beetles and termite queens, which can live up to 30 and 50 years, respectively — cicadas are one of the insects with the longest time spent here on Earth. Once they mate after emerging, however, they will die off. (And their offspring will surface around 2038.)

New Zealand Cicade on Leaf with Green Background

They've Long Been a Symbol of Rebirth

As the National Museum of Asian Art noted in a 2016 article, cicadas have long been associated with "rebirth and immortality," especially in China, where centuries ago they were considered creatures of high status and were even represented on the headgear of some rulers and nobility.

Red Locust

Cicadas Are Often Confused With Locusts

People often mistake cicadas for locusts "because they emerge in massive numbers like true locusts. Locusts are grasshoppers," notes Matta, "(and) are known to chew and eat most vegetation they come across." However, unlike destructive and plague-causing locusts, "cicadas are generally harmless" to the environment, Matta adds. "Cicadas are a natural and beneficial part of the food chain and ecosystem. The mass emergence of periodical cicadas is a phenomenon that is incredible to witness."

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