By Margo D. Beller
They’ve been waiting for a long time to emerge. They’ve waited for the right conditions, when the soil is about 63 degrees in the northern U.S. Then they rise from the ground where they’ve hidden for 17 years.
What have they been doing all this time? Not much of anything, really, except evolving and waiting for the right time…to strike!
They come out of the ground. They crawl up your trees. They fly around your yard. Suddenly, they are everywhere – on your trees, in your shrubs, all over your car, your deck, your home.
They all want one thing, they want it now and to get it they are calling at incredibly loud volume.
It is…The Attack of the CICADAS!!
You might not know exactly what a cicada is but you know what they sound like – that whirring that seems to spread from tree to tree during the late part of every summer. They are part of the hot summer soundscape - cicadas by day, katydids by night. Both insects are moving some part of their bodies to create a sound to draw to it a member of the opposite sex for the purpose of mating and continuing the species.
The cicada is a reminder of the end of the summer and the approach of back-to-school and cooler weather.
This year, however, is a little different in New Jersey.
These are not annual cicadas you’ve been hearing every waking daylight moment since May. These are periodic cicadas that emerge once every 17 years. The ones afflicting or entertaining us (depending on your outlook) in New Jersey is called Brood II, one of 15 distinct broods that appear in the northeastern U.S.
These are larger and earlier than the annual cicadas and they’ve arrived to torment you with their whirring.
The coming of Brood II has been a big deal. There are people – scientists and laypeople who like bugs - who couldn’t wait for them to arrive. There have been articles in scientific journals, on the news and, of course, videos on YouTube. NPR was moved to provide commentary on how to live with these creatures. There are suddenly cicada recipes and restaurants that have begun serving them, if you have an appetite for such fare.
But to me the full horror – er, majesty – of Brood II is the sound. Loud and continual. If they are in your neighborhood, you know it. If you are listening for summer birds and these cicadas are out – forget about it. You can’t hear birds for the noise and you can’t see them for the swarming.
These critters also make a big mess. When they emerge from the ground, they are juveniles – cicada teenagers – and the first thing they do is shed their skins. The next thing they do is fly to a spot where they can call and call until they draw a mate. Then they continue the species. The male dies.
According to Wikipedia, “After mating, the female cuts V-shaped slits in the bark of young twigs and lays approximately 20 eggs in each, for a total of 600 or more eggs. After about six to ten weeks, the eggs hatch and the newborn nymphs drop to the ground, where they burrow and begin another 13 or 17-year cycle.”
Meanwhile, the female has died. That’s a whole lot of cicada exoskeletons underfoot.
I don’t happen to like having to strain to hear anything over the din of mating calls but there are many birders out there, at least in New Jersey, who are as fascinated by the cicadas as by the birds they find in the field. They’ve even reported their cicada findings to the New Jersey bird report list.
I’ve been lucky because Brood II has skipped my part of New Jersey. I have a hard enough time with the noise of daily suburban life. But my husband, who has always been fascinated by insects and snakes, wanted to hear Brood II. So we went to Scherman Hoffman.
We got there mid-afternoon on a dry, sunny Sunday – perfect conditions for hiking after Friday’s rain. The sun, however, brought out the cicadas and the deafening din. There are birds at Scherman Hoffman but they might as well have packed up and gone elsewhere. I only heard a couple of House Wrens close to the Field Loop trail and the chittering of Chimney Swifts overhead.
Cicadas are related to the locust, and Brood II cicadas are larger and uglier than the cicadas that come around each summer. Unlike locusts, these cicadas won’t eat your plants. They just want to use them to hang out on as they wait for a mate. At Scherman Hoffman they were everywhere – flying around the tops of trees in bee-like swarms, attaching themselves to the education center (see below), attaching themselves to every type of plant high and low and, occasionally, trying to land on a human being not quick enough to move out of its way.
Even tho’ they don’t bite, when something that large and so ugly comes straight at you, you run away, fast -- which I had to do, several times.
One can ask, aren’t all those cicadas good for the birds? I would guess they are, especially for those birds with hungry young back at the nest. However, Brood II is so huge there is only so much the hungry birds can eat. That may be why these broods are so large - to keep the vast majority alive long enough to lay their eggs.
My husband stayed back at the car, under a tree, as I attempted to get to the river trail and find the local Louisiana Waterthrush. I got some relief from the flying cicadas once I got under the trees, away from the open fields. But that sound… The din reminds me of the spaceship noises you hear in shlocky science fiction films.
The cicadas can almost make you forget about the other insects at Scherman Hoffman including dragonflies, damselflies, beetles and, unfortunately, black flies and mosquitos. While the cicadas were calling from the treetops along the river, the flies were thick below. I didn’t find the Waterthrush.
The lifespan of a cicada is short. All these creatures will do is mate and die. They are not particularly artful about either of these. The pair mating below were on the gravel of the upper parking lot by the education center. I didn’t check if they were alive but it doesn’t matter. When I got back to my husband he said he had cleared at least eight dead cicadas that had fallen onto the car. The bodies were everywhere.
We left Scherman Hoffman for the house of a friend in another part of Bernardsville. The din was less there but you could hear it in the distance. Still, some cicadas were flying between the trees, landing on the porch railing and falling the deck either alive or, more likely, dead. All were quickly nabbed by our friend’s greyhound. Pure protein, I’m told. They sure were crunchy.
Pass the pretzels.
As we sat on the deck I realized that, like the other type of cicadas, as the sun goes down the din subsides. By dark they are quiet, waiting to rise another day and go back on their relentless task of mating, laying eggs and dying.
But not much longer. By July they should be gone, for another 17 years.