Cicada emergence.
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Cicadageddon: Billions Of Insects To Emerge In ‘Synchronized’ Explosion

“All you can do is enjoy the show …”

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As dogwoods begin to bloom this spring, billions upon billions of supercharged cicadas are expected to boil from the Earth and shroud the eastern United States in a synchronized explosion — the likes of which haven’t been seen since America made the Louisiana Purchase.

While the idea of “cicadageddon” may sound analogous to the eighth plague described in the Book of Exodus, entomology professors across the country are encouraging bystanders to enjoy the rare display from these insects — whose exploits were chronicled in Homer’s Iliad and the annals of the Shang dynasty.

Known for their famously loud symphonies, scientists have identified over 3,390 cicada species across every continent excluding Antarctica — with about 190 of these species occurring in North America. The insects have since been divvied into two groups: Annual and periodical.

Of interest? Two periodical groups — of genus Magicicada — are months away from flooding the skies in a spontaneous phenomenon last recorded by scientists in 1803. Following this year’s blitzkrieg, the mystifying insects won’t harmonize for another 221 years.

In short, 2024 belongs to the cicadas …

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THE PERIODICAL EMERGENCE …

Cicada on a plant.
A periodical cicada from Brood XIX clings to a plant in 2011. (Austin Jenkins)

Hailed as one of the world’s “most amazing” insects, periodical cicadas spend the vast majority of their lives burrowed beneath the ground in larval form, emerging every 13 to 17 years — depending on the “brood” — before procreating and dying as a consequence.

These sex-crazed, periodical cicadas were first recorded by pilgrims at Plymouth Colony in 1634, prompting governor William Bradford to summarize the short-lived onslaught thusly: “A great sort of flies … as made all the woods ring of them, and ready to deaf the hearers …”

Nearly 400 years after Bradford’s journal entry, the periodical’s life cycle remains a mystery to entomologists and connoisseurs alike. As noted — respective broods emerge an average of once every 15 years, coming in third place for the longest-living insects globally. 

Like Catholic popes, broods carry Roman numerals such as Brood I, II, III, IV … you get the idea. And while entomologist Charles Lester Marlatt catalogued 30 periodical broods in 1907, only 15 are known to have survived the ongoing industrialization of America.

Of those fighters, Brood XIX, or the “Great Southern Brood,” remains the most widely distributed of all periodical cicadas — recorded across the east coast from Maryland to Georgia, and within the Midwest from Iowa to Oklahoma during its last lollapalooza in 2011.

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“They are so tuned in,” said Eric Benson, Ph.D., an entomology professor and extension specialist at Clemson University. “To go underground for 13 years and to come out at the same time as all your kin is pretty amazing … and it’s been 13 years since this last happened.”

According to Benson, the red-eyed XIX emerges in concentrations of about 1.5 million per undeveloped acre, sending ripples throughout the biosphere while satiating the strongest of its natural predators — including but not limited to virtually every organism with a mouthpiece.

But nobody said orgies were easy …

“They basically want to have sex and die,” continued Benson. “And the way they do that is by overwhelming the system. A lizard or a bird might be able to eat five [cicadas], but they can’t eat one billion. So … enough of them mate, lay their eggs and repeat the cycle.”

Come mid-May 2024, billions of these cicadas are expected to repeat the aforesaid cycles across 30 percent of the U.S.: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, and yes, South Carolina.

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NUISANCE OR PHENOMENA?

Cicada on a hand.
A periodical cicada from Brood XIX lands on Austin Jenkins’ hand in 2011. (Austin Jenkins)

At 1.5 inches long, each periodical produces a species-specific song at sound pressure levels (SPL) of about 105 decibels — analogous to harmful noise levels generated by helicopters, motorcycles, chainsaws and suppressed firearms.

“You’ll hear ‘em before you see ‘em,” said naturalist Austin Jenkins, Ph.D., senior biology instructor at the University of South Carolina-Sumter (USC). “They will quite literally fall from treetops and onto your shoulders … It really is something out of a movie, and one of the better vistas in life.”

What’s more, Brood XIX is expected to overlap with the simultaneous, 17-year emergence of Brood XIII in central Illinois — a dual-emergence last recorded as Lewis and Clark prepared themselves for the U.S. Military expedition of the Louisiana Purchase and Pacific Northwest.

“I’d almost travel for it,” continued Jenkins. “One brood alone would take you off your feet. To have two would be indescribable … and remember, this is acute. Cicadas only have four to six weeks as an adult. This represents the end of their lifespan.”

After mating, female cicadas use an external, tubular organ to slit pencil-sized tree branches and deposit 10-25 eggs per slash; laying anywhere from 200 to 600 eggs per branch before dying alongside their lovers at the forest floor.

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From above, cicada offsprings hatch from 0.125 inch-long eggs, free-fall to the Earth and burrow approximately two feet underground — aerating the soil and improving water filtration while sucking on plant roots … for the next 13 to 17 years

“It’s one of nature’s wonders that this even evolved,” continued Benson. “It’s a short period of inconvenience for a natural phenomena that’s been going on since recorded time. And, again, if you have cicadas, that means your environment has been pretty healthy for at least 13 years.”

While cicadas may appear demonic, they are neither poisonous nor venomous; neither biters nor stingers; neither household garden nor crop adversaries, and neither harmful to humans or their pets, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Moreover, Benson and Jenkins encourage South Carolinians to experience the phenomena firsthand. High-decibel cicadas are forecasted across Aiken, Anderson, Oconee, Pickens, Greenville, Laurens, Spartanburg, Union and York County — with recommended observatories including Landsford Canal State Park and Sumter National Forest.

While GardenTech has since unveiled extreme methods for combatting Brood XIX cicadas — including various insecticidal products to reduce its future population — Benson implores the following: “Try to enjoy the show. You may never see it again.”

PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY ANDREW FANCHER

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Andrew Fancher (Travis Bell)

Andrew Fancher is a Lone Star Emmy award-winning journalist from Dallas, Texas. Cut from a bloodline of outlaws and lawmen alike, he was the first of his family to graduate college which was accomplished with honors. Got a story idea or news tip for Andy? Email him directly and connect with him socially across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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1 comment

The Dude Top fan March 5, 2024 at 7:15 am

Lewis and Clark

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