The eighth biblical plague that tortured Egypt was a plague of locusts.
As described in Exodus 10:5, “And they shall cover the face of the earth, that one cannot be able to see the earth: and they shall eat the residue of that which is escaped, which remaineth unto you from the hail, and shall eat every tree which groweth for you out of the field.”
Flip the aforementioned “they” from locusts to cicadas, and that’s actually a pretty apt description of what residents in some parts of Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia will experience next month when the soil warms to 64 degrees and billions of cicadas rise from the ground to mate. Fortunately, cicadas can’t chew so they don’t devour our plants and trees. If they manage to avoid predators long enough they suck up plant sap but not enough to any real damage.
This particular group of insects has a 17-year-life cycle that begins underground and culminates in the air as they swell and swarm and scream and sing, issuing deafening cries as the males desperately seek mates. This current 17-year-cycle, which began in 1999, begins to end next month, reports Cicada Mania.
As billions of insects emerge, they can reach a density of 1.5 million cicadas an acre in some areas.
The insects have hard, sleek shells topped with two bulb-like, red eyes. On average, they’re a little over 1.5 inches in length and, don’t worry, they don’t bite or sting, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
The adults live above ground for four to six weeks, and the only thing that interests them is mating and laying eggs (much like salmon during the famed salmon run).
But there’s the noise.
Oh, the noise.
Anyone who has experienced a swarm likely remembers the noise.
As David Snyder wrote in The Washington Post in 2004, “Words seem inadequate to describe that vaguely menacing hum-whistle that seems to be everywhere but emanates from no single place in particular.”
“It feels like an alien spaceship coming in,” Arlington resident Gene Miller told Snyder.
That sound, the melodic, almost frightening buzzing, wakes with the sun in the early morning and continues late into the night. The droning is a mating cry sung by males, as they try to find willing females before their 17-year-old lives conclude.
“After the male and female cicada have mated, the female will lay fertilized eggs in slits cut with her ovipositor on small live twigs,” entomologist Russ Horton told The Post in 2013. “It takes roughly six weeks for the eggs to hatch and the nymphs to emerge.”
When they do, according to Ohio State University professor of entomology David Shetlar the nymphs then fall from the trees and burrow anywhere from six to 18 inches in the ground, where they feed on juices from plant roots for 13 or 17 years, depending on what species they are.
Females can lay up to 400 eggs each, across 4o to 50 sites.
“But wait, I saw cicadas a few years ago!” you might be thinking. “I remember that noise!”
That’s not incorrect.
There are several “broods” of cicadas, which is based on which cycle they’re part of. Most of these broods are comprised of different species of cicada, and different broods emerge and swarm around different parts to the country (in different years).
These broods have been tracked since the 1800s, according to the USDA’s 1907 book “The Periodical Cicada” by C.L. Marlatt.
On top of that, there are several types of cicada life cycles. Some have 13-year life spans, and some are even annual, according to Auburn University’s Department of Entomology.
In fact, Brood II, which consists of cicadas on a 17-year cycle, overtook Washington in 2013, The Post reported.
The one emerging in May is Brood V, which includes Magicicada septendecim, Magicicada cassini and Magicicada septendecula, the Star Beacon reported.
According to the USDA, Brood V comprises the largest swarms that are seen in either Ohio or West Virginia, and some Ohioans are taking advantage of the occasion.
Cleveland Metroparks, in particular, is hosting educational events centered on the cicadas.
“It’s going to be a wild ride,” said Wendy Weirich, director of Outdoor Experiences for the Cleveland Metroparks, told the Plain Dealer. “It’s like Rip Van Winkle for insects.”