13-year itch: Cicadas 'fill' air with romance

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Red-eyed Brood XIX re-emerges, looking for love

By Nita Brown

If you live in the country, you may be hearing a noise right now you just can’t explain.
That’s not some huge industrial machine humming miles away and it’s not your imagination gone wild. There’s nothing wrong with your hearing.
It’s the return of the 13-year cicadas, which have re-emerged from underground to mate.   
Jane Massey of Van Wyck has already seen more than her share of these fearful-looking, red-eyed insects flitting about.
“I’m having to sweep off the porch every day to get rid of the ‘crunch’ underfoot,” Massey said of the horde of cicada carcasses in her yard.
“The sound is driving my dogs crazy,” Massey said. “They want to get in the house away from the noise.”
Cicadas, cousins of the common  “July Fly,” emerge like clockwork from the ground every 13 years. They’re about 1.5 inches long, with red eyes, black body, orange legs and clear wings with orange veining.  
Paul Thompson, horticulture agent of Clemson Extension Service Office in York, said the time periodical cicadas come out differs by latitude and is triggered by soil temperatures reaching 64 degrees for about two weeks.
 They re-emerged the last week of April, with the local population now peaking.
“Some come out every 13 years, and some every 17 years,” Thompson said.
Scientists assign brood numbers based on the time they emerge. Thompson said there are about 30 broods in the United States, with 15 broods now active. They occur only in the Eastern United States, from the Gulf of Mexico to Maine. Generally, 17-year cicadas are northern and 13-year cicadas are southern, but none of the broods are usually found in moist, coastal regions.
Thompson said the cicadas in this area are part of Brood XIX (the Great Southern Brood), which includes Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas. There are four species in the brood, with the main species in South Carolina being Magicicada tredecim.
Dr. Eric Benson, Clemson Extension Service entomologist and professor in Clemson University’s Entomology, Soils and Plant Sciences Department, writes that anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 cicada nymphs may emerge from the soil beneath just one large tree. That translates to hundreds of thousands on a single acre of mostly hardwood forest.
While cicadas are partial to oak trees, they will hang out on other hardwoods, including sweet gum and hickory. You might find their carcasses any place.
What’s all that noise?
It’s a very large choir of males singing a mating call to attract females, said Scott Hawkins of the South Carolina Forestry Commission.
You could call them “Johnny one-notes.” Each species sings the same pitch (C-sharp). If you’re hearing multiple notes, there is more than one species in the neighborhood.
The sound is created by membranes vibrating on the male’s body.
Hawkins said scientists agree cicadas are noisy, and some say they’re the loudest in the insect world.
“Multiplied by the millions, the sound gets downright deafening at close range, and you can hear it for miles,” Hawkins said.
Cool temperatures and wet weather slow down active bugs, while dry weather and warmth stimulate activity, which is why the sound is louder in the heat of a dry day.
Life cycle
The cicadas’ life above-ground is very short (eight to 10 weeks).
The immature cicada, called a nymph, crawls out of the ground at night, climbs a nearby tree or vertical surface and latches on to shed its skin.
Emerging as a winged adult, it leaves the old carcass behind. By dawn, its wings have expanded and hardened. The cicada is now flight and mate-ready.
Males and females mate multiple times, with each female laying up to 600 eggs. Using her sharp ovipositor, the female slices two rows of slits in twigs to deposit her eggs. Each slit contains up to 48 eggs. Adults die within four weeks. Egg hatching occurs in six to eight weeks. Newly hatched nymphs, which look like small ants, complete the cycle. They drop to the ground, burrow and begin their 13-year life underground, sucking sap from roots.
Environmental impact
Though great in numbers and obnoxious, Thompson said cicadas are harmless and even beneficial.
“They’re a tremendous food source for wildlife,” he said, with birds, spiders and snakes feasting to their hearts’ content, with no noticeable impact on the population.
Although not considered harmful to trees and plants, if host plants are young, it’s possible to see some cicada damage.
Thompson said flagging (dead branches drooping and then dropping to the ground) indicates breakage from the egg-containing slits.
“Flagging may cause some marring of appearance, but usually there’s no long-term damage to the plant,” Thompson said.
If you know in advance when cicadas are due to emerge, you can cover young trees with bird netting or cheesecloth fastened securely around the tree trunks to protect them.
Adult cicadas’ legs are scratchy. If one lands on you, you could think they’ve bitten, but they don’t bite. They don’t eat, either. They’re just above-ground to mate.
Keeping track
Unless you’re a scientist, tracking cicadas can be confusing.
Massey and Wilma Starnes, both of Van Wyck, had heard these were 17-year cicadas.
South Carolina has a 17-year cicada species, but they’re mostly in upstate elevations. The last emergence here was in 1998, precisely 13 years ago, and the population seemed heaviest in the Van Wyck area.
Van Wyck postmaster Betty George said the cicadas aren’t as bad this year as in 1998.   
However, Starnes tells a different story. Her yard – like Massey’s – is almost covered by a carpet of cicada carcasses.
Starnes has been collecting live cicadas in plastic jars or bottles and already has more than 1,000. With so many still flying around, Starnes knows her efforts will not reduce the population by much.
“At least these won’t be reproducing,” Starnes said, laughing.
Van Wyck isn’t the only place infested with cicadas. North Corner resident Kathy Ferrill said her yard is full of them, too, although this week’s rain and cooler weather has them on the move.
“They were hanging on the deck posts, the gazebo curtains, and were even in our pool,” Ferrill said.
“(It) sounds like a flying saucer over here,” said Al James, manager at Landsford Canal State Park.
Since the next emergence won’t happen until 2024, Hawkins said we should enjoy the experience.
“I’ll never forget the17-year emergence in 1987 when I was a kid in Ohio,” he said.
“So take your kids out for a look and listen, and make it a teaching moment for them,” Hawkins said.
Be a scientist’s assistant
The South Carolina Forestry Commission is compiling data on the cicada emergence and you can help. Go online to http://www.trees.sc.gov/idcicada.htm. Here’s what they’d like to know:
– Your location (city and county)
– The date that you first (or last) heard or saw the cicadas
– Any egg-laying damage you’ve seen
– Any other information you think may be helpful