Monday, May 23, 2011

Cicadas Shouting For Hot Sex

There’s a soft buzz around my house and within the week it will increase in volume. No, it’s not the business of doing spring and early summer chores, but of the insect variety.

The invasion has started. Cue the music but you better play it loud.

You see Cicada Brood XIX is emerging from the ground in the millions. This group is a periodical cicada with a thirteen-year cycle. The last time we heard this was in 1998. I had just moved back to Missouri from California and well remember the volume of their song. Holy cow was it loud. Part of the noise was due to the emergence of the Seventeen-year cicada at the same time. The last time that happened, according to Missouri Conservation Department, was in 1777. So the two emerging at the same time happens approximately every 221 years.

We get cicadas every year, and from July to September, you’ll hear them sing. These are called Dog day cicadas. They’re a bit larger. But these are not what are emerging from the ground this week.

I first noticed them this past week. A weird looking bugs on my patio—they were cicada nymphs ( I just knew they were ¾’s of inch and ugly). The next day when I was mowing the lawn before the rain I noticed a few exoskeletons on grass blades and on my huge oak in the front yard. By the following day there were literally hundreds of them on my Hostas and other shrubbery surrounding the tree (that’s not counting the other trees in the yard, this was just my old man oak). As I mowed I found holes in the ground—like a kid went through and percolated my lawn with a sharp round stick. The holes are about the width of my index finger.

Needless to say, I’m feeling a bit invaded and they haven’t even started sing very loud at this point. That’s due to the fact that ground temps need to be around 65 degrees for them to dig their way out of the ground and molt. To sing in chorus and fly they need to have a body temp between 70 and 72 degrees. The fact that temperatures have been unseasonably cool with lots of rain has delayed the cycle.

Brittle exoskeletons are everywhere! 
Before its final molt to the adult stage, the nymph will emerge from the ground and climb up the trunk of a tree, fence post or side of a house, tall grass, and attach itself with its claws. The exoskeleton will split down the middle of the back and the adult will gradually pull itself free, leaving the brown and brittle exoskeleton still attached to where ever it stopped. It takes two or three days for the adult cicadas to dry their wings and harden up their bodies enough to start the hunt for a mate. Then there will be a two-month, above ground, mating frenzy. Even though the adults can live from five to six weeks, emergence happens over a space of about a week or two and that means two months of the males shouting out ‘a come have sex with me’ chorus.

If you want to see (unless you're squamish about bugs) a nice video with David Attenborough click here. He's speaking of the 17 year Cicada, but it applies to the 13 year as well.

Because it was such a healthy population when it emerged in 1998, Brood 19 is expected to be quite large as it emerges again, promising a noisy spring across most of Missouri. So noisy those planning outdoor weddings are told to consider having them indoors. Yep, we’re talking really loud—mating calls can hit up to 85 decibels in places where the insects are most concentrated.

The good news is, they tend to sing from sunrise to sunset and are quiet during the night.

Did you know that one-acre of prime bottomland forest can produce 1.5 million periodical cicadas? The sheer volume of these insects is amazing but the volume is such that predators can't eat them all.

Cicada Killer
 Speaking of predators, I’ve seen squirrels eat cicadas—mice, rats, frogs, and lizards, too. They’re very high in protein. My cats have a grand old time chasing them; my dogs also will eat them. I haven’t noticed the horses doing so, unless the insects are on the grass the horses eat. I wouldn’t be surprised. I have several bird feeders in the yard and I’ve seen blue jays, cardinals, and quite a few other birds eating the cicadas. I do know from personal experience cicadas make fabulous bate for fishing.

There is one nasty looking wasp that eats them, called a Cicada Killer. These are out in record numbers too. Supply and demand, I suppose.

So there is going to be a loud, shrill, and incessant chorus through the end of June. Once they die—and lordy they stink when they do—we should have normal insect singing again.

Well, until the end of July when the annual Dog Day Cicadas make their appearance.

At least there is not as many of them.


SueO said...

I have this strange desire to cheer the Cicada Killer. Is this wrong?

Interesting post, Sia.

Hope everything else is cool in your world.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Sia .. these 13 and 17 year cycles are quite an amazing feat of nature .. it sounds like you might have your work cut out for you for the next couple of months!

Thanks for all the info - really interesting - cheers Hilary

Tonya Kappes said...

Oh, boy! YOu should've been in my house during the cicada invasion a few years ago. Four little boys + cicadas= disaster!

Jo said...

So glad I don't live near you Sia, the noise would probably drive me nuts. Cicadas are quite noisy enough as it is.

Hope you were not affected by the tornado.

VA said...

Fascinating. Not sure how I'd feel about little carapaces littered everywhere and the crunch of them as I moved about, but I know I'd block out the noise as background--eventually. Nature is amazing. Are they destructive?

~Sia McKye~ said...

Jo, thank you. We survived the tornadoes and they went south east of us. Were 178 miles from Joplin.

The problem I'd dealing with right now is intermittent phone service and internet as this system rages through. And we have this going on for the next 3 days? I'll be nuts.

The noise of the cicadas drives you crazy at times. They haven't been singing much today because it's raining and cool. The ones in the trees about a half mile from here along the creek were clearly singing in the early morning sunshine. Sun's gone and it's really dark and rainy so singing is on hold.

aries18 said...

Sia, I've never heard the cicadas sing. And I hope I never hear the thing you're going to be going through in the next few weeks. But I do marvel at the life cycle of these little bugs. Nature can surely surprise and amaze us if we take the time to just look. Thanks.