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A Wonder Of Nature: Brood X Has Emerged In The Miami Valley

A pair of cicadas from Brood X, joined at their ends, reproducing in Ohio.
Chris Welter
A pair of cicadas from Brood X reproducing in Ohio.

After spending the last 17 years underground sucking on the roots of trees, billions of juvenile cicadas have emerged across western Ohio and most of Indiana. For the next few weeks, the Brood X cicadas will transform into adults, mate, lay eggs and then die off.

And in the meantime, the cicadas will make a lot of noise.

The shells of cicadas can be seen on the bark of a tree
Chris Welter
The shells of cicadas can be seen on the bark of a tree

In Glen Helen Nature Preserve in Yellow Springs, a chorus of male cicadas are singing their mating call at an ear-splitting 100 decibels. It’s about as loud as city traffic, or standing right next to a lawnmower. They are using a specialized vibrating organ called a tymbal to create their characteristic clicking sound.

Don Cipollini is a professor of biology at Wright State University. He studies plant-insect interactions. Standing under a canopy of trees in Glen Helen, he said he has been interested in cicadas ever since he saw his first mass emergence as a kid.

"Cicadas are a wonder of nature. These are the longest lived and loudest insects in the world," he said. "They've kind of all coordinated their life cycles together to survive and reproduce and get their genes to the next generation."

It's a numbers game for periodical cicadas. A number of them will be consumed by predators—birds, mice and snakes for example—while others may fall victim to a fungus that causes their butts to fall off. Some, who are malformed, will never even emerge from their shell. Luckily, Cipollini said, historically the periodical cicada survival strategy has worked—enough of them survive to reproduce and lay eggs.

Cipollini emphasized that cicadas are not harmful. He said that it is frustrating when people try to use chemicals to remove them. While they can cause cosmetic damage to young trees or give pets an upset stomach, he said:

"They aren't toxic. They don't bite. You can eat them. I've done it.”

Cipollini said the bugs taste like asparagus when they’re cooked plain. But if they’re breaded and fried, he says they taste like shrimp. That’s why some people call them tree shrimp. He said they are best to eat right after they emerge from their shells when they are squishy, soft and pale. Within a few days, the cicada's skin will harden, their wings will emerge and they will turn black in color. According to the FDA, people with shellfish allergies shouldn't eat cicadas because the bug is actually related to shrimp and lobsters.

A mature cicada with its characteristic red eyes climbs a tree
Chris Welter
A mature cicada with its characteristic red eyes climbs a tree

Cipollini says the best way to protect the cicada is to protect their habitat—large, mature trees—from development and fragmentation. He said the exact reason why cicadas know to re-emerge after 13 or 17 years is a bit of a mystery. But it's believed the bug has some sort of internal clock. There is a concern among some scientists that climate change could confuse that cycle. If there were extreme weather fluctuations in the winter for example, the cicada could think one calendar year was actually two and then they would emerge early.

There's even a huge community science effort to map Brood X this year, so scientists can better understand the population size and fluctuations of the bug.

Environmental reporter Chris Welter is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.