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Noisy Invasion Of Cicadas Looms

By James Donahue

People along the eastern half of the United States are awaiting the expected invasion this month of "Brood II" of cicada, a noisy insect that will be emerging on a routine 17-year mating cycle. As soon as the ground temperature hits 65 degrees, these creatures crawl from the earth, make their way into the trees and bushes, and begin their musical mating call.

Unlike birds and other insects, the cicada emit such a piercing and high-pitched sound that you can’t help but notice they are with us. Put a few thousand of them in the same area and the noise can sometimes be deafening. Entomologists say this will be the largest cicada "brood" to hit the region since Brood X last emerged. These creatures, which look something like giant flies with orange eyes, have been hiding underground since 1996, awaiting their time to awaken, breed and then die. Broods come out every 17 years.

I fondly remember the last time Brood II invaded the trees across the eastern states. I had been on a trip to Kentucky to visit with my parents, then flew to Savanna, Georgia to spend time with our daughter and her family. She was hawking cars for a local dealer and talked me into buying a used car.

The air conditioner didn’t work and it was early summer, so the drive back to Michigan was not very comfortable. Consequently I did a lot of night driving with the windows opened.

As I traveled the eastern highways, working my way up through the Appalachian Mountains to the shores of Lake Erie, then West to Michigan, I remember hearing the voices of thousands of male cicadas all orchestrating a collective mating call. The eerie sound struck me in waves as I passed through wooded areas then open farmland, then back through the woods. 

According to Greg Hoover, senior extension entomologist at Penn State University, there are numerous species of cicada, some of them hatching after shorter cycles. There are at least 13 species of cicada that awaken every 17 years so the sound is relatively common every summer. But Brood II is going to be the noisy one in the Mideastern States where they mostly make their home. They may already be making themselves known in the warmer, southern regions.

When they start singing, sometime late in May and early June, folks won’t miss their call. The high pitched sound is so intense it seems to be coming from inside your head. It’s almost like having your ears ringing, only louder and more intense.

 Expect the racket to continue for a few weeks. But then, Hoover promises, it will stop as the bugs disappear underground once more and start yet another 17-year sleep.

Where can you expect to hear the sound? Hoover says the bug's range stretches from Georgia west through Tennessee and isolated parts of Missouri, and north through the Ohio Valley, New Jersey, and as far as Michigan and New York.

"This is one of those years we kind of dread," said Paris Lambdin, entomologist at University of Tennessee.

In rare years, a 13-year brood can emerge to add its collective voice to that of a 17-year brood.

Even though the bugs will be a nuisance, making noise and flying wildly around, bumping into things, the cicadas are not an environmental concern. They don’t feed on leaves or strip trees.

Once mated, the females lay pockets of eggs along twigs. The eggs cause a structural weakening of the twigs, causing them to eventually fall to the ground. And that is exactly how it is supposed to be. The nymphs, or tiny caterpillars fall into the soil, and they live there for the next 17 years.