Cicadas Swarming Back In

Noisy insects known as "periodical" cicadas have been in hiding underground for nearly two decades, but are now back and are in the mood for love. For those living in the Northeast, this means that for some time to come, you'll be hearing the incessant drone of the bugs as they go on the hunt for mates.

The male periodical cicadas use an organ underneath their wings called a "tymbal" — rather like a tiny drum pad — in order to attract their mates. This is the noise Northeasterners will have to get used to hearing after some 17 years of relative peace and quiet.

"Basically the calling attracts the cicadas to the treetops," Michael Raupp, professor of entomology at the University of Maryland, said as relayed by vetstreet.

Raupp, who also runs website Bug of the Week, notes that the tymbal sound of the male cicadas is a way for them to "aggregate. They're saying, 'Party up here!' "

Vetstreet says that because the sound of the cicadas is so similar to machinery, it might not only annoy us humans: it can also lead to confusion among the bugs.

"Leaf blowers, weed whackers, even some riding lawn mowers send out vibrations that trigger the same response, and the males will swarm users of these power tools," Gene Kritsky of the College of Mount St. Joseph — and author of two books about cicadas — said, according to vetstreet.

Raupp anthropomorphizes the three different cicada mating calls that are used to attract the three different species the males are seeking.

"The first call is like 'Do you come here often?' ... The second is 'That's a lovely dress,' and the third is 'Let's go back to my place.' If she's impressed, she'll respond with a little dance and clicking."

Because there are actually 12 different groups or "broods" of periodical cicadas, whose appearance is staggered, we hear them more than every 17 years.

"There are also three broods of 13-year cicadas. Seventeen-year and 13-year cicadas will emerge at the same time once every 221 years," vetstreet says.

There are also cicadas that we hear every year. These cicadas are found the world over and usually come out during the summertime. Periodical cicadas only come out in North America, hence why we hear them during their own unique cycles.

According to Kritsky, this is why these cicadas — Magicicada — have their name.

"[It is] tied into the fact that their life cycle is almost magical," Kritsky said.

Cicadas can appear a little scary and might be rather noisy, but they can't hurt you. They can only cause some damage to trees by laying too many eggs in tree branches.

Cicadas are also not too dangerous to be eaten by your pets, but it's all a matter of moderation.

"If they eat enough of them, we could see some stomach upset, either vomiting or diarrhea," Dr. Tina Wismer of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center said.

Because dogs in particular have difficulty digesting the exoskeletons of the cicadas, an obstruction could occur in their systems. But generally the dogs will be able to pass the crunchy exoskeletons in their stool.

Even humans can eat cicadas, believe it or not.

"I've eaten a lot of them," Raupp said. "They taste like a shellfish when boiled, and delicate and nutty when raw."

Raupp adds that anyone with a shellfish allergy should avoid eating cicadas because they are invertebrates, and says that those who do want to indulge should stick to female cicadas:

"Females are full of eggs, and that's where the flavor is. The males are essentially hollow in the abdomen because they use that as a resonance chamber." 

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