November 26, 2018
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They look like mutant flies, sound like a chorus of power drills and are currently making their way up from underground after 17 years of hibernation. That’s right — the cicadas are making their regularly scheduled comeback. And just in time for Reunion Weekend.
Predicting the exact date that a swarm of cicadas will appear from the ground is tricky, but they have started to appear in Gambier. The temperature of the soil 8 inches underground must reach 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Then warm rain — or extra warm weather — often triggers their synchronized arrival up through the earth.
While not everyone is ready to greet these creatures with open arms and ears, entomologist Megan Meuti has waited eagerly for them to emerge.
When Meuti, visiting assistant professor of biology, talks about these insects, her voice rises with excitement. She described this brood of three species of periodical cicadas (genus: Magicicada) as “kind of magical,” like their name, and called their emergence a “huge phenomenon.” In fact, this family of cicadas, found only in North America, was “one of the first things that settlers noticed when they came to North America,” she said.
They are, after all, hard to ignore. The periodical cicadas are different from the more run-of-the-mill annual (or dog-day) cicada, which can be seen and heard every summer in Ohio. According to Meuti, these cicadas are mostly black, with orange or red eyes, whereas annual cicadas typically have black eyes and a greenish pattern on their backs. The periodical cicadas also are slightly larger than annual cicadas, and the larger the cicada is, the louder the sound it produces. Cicadas sing out distinctive mating calls through organs called tymbals, which they click in and out in rapid succession.
“Only the male cicadas produce the sound, and they are calling out to the ladies to get together for a date, for mating,” Meuti said.
“The insides of their abdomens are very hollow, so if you pick up a cicada you'll notice that it is very light inside because they are mostly air. And the hollow space in the abdomen acts basically like a drum or a speaker to amplify the sound. Males will call out to females, and if the females like what they hear, they will click their wings in response to the males, and then the males will approach a little bit closer. Then the females will click their wings again until eventually they meet up.”
(Fun fact: If you spot a male cicada mid-song, snap your fingers next to him. A finger snap sounds enough like a female cicada’s wing click that he will probably follow your fingers around for a bit.)
Cicadas essentially have one purpose in life — to mate — and they don’t have much time because they only live for about a month. So given their single-minded pursuit of passion, these plant eaters are completely harmless to humans and other animals (they neither bite nor sting). Once they mate, the females lay their eggs inside the twigs of weaker trees. Eventually, those twigs will die, the branches will fall off, and baby cicadas will hatch out of them and burrow underground, where they will stay dormant for 17 years.
Ray Heithaus ’68 P’99 H’14, professor emeritus of environmental science and biology, has also studied cicadas. Biologists, he said, “generally feel the advantage is that if all [of these cicadas] emerge at the same time, then the predatory animals can’t get as large a percentage of the individual cicadas in the population. In technical terms, it’s known as predator satiation.” In other regions of the country, cicadas also emerge in cycles of seven and 13 years.
“What's the advantage of seven or 13 years as compared to others?” he asked. “We can only guess, but the guess is that those are prime numbers, so the [predators] can't evolve to their cycles very easily to match when the big emergence comes out.”
For birds, squirrels, raccoons, skunks and even dogs, cicadas “are like their dessert for the year,” Heithaus added.
Meuti has some rather ambitious plans for this year’s crop of cicadas. “We could eat cicadas, too, if we wanted to,” she said. “I have not tried them but am going to see what I can do with them this time around.” She’s researching cicada recipes and said she’s excited to try cooking them for herself and anyone else brave enough to try them. “I imagine that, just like anything else, if you season it and get it crispy enough, it will be delicious,” she said.
For the less culinarily adventurous, Heithaus recommended just pausing to admire the cicadas while they are around. "If you look closely, I think they can be really pretty,” he said. “It's fascinating to be able to watch the emergence, and how the animals escape their exoskeletons and then pump up their wings to become adults.”
Join Meuti at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 11, in Higley Hall Auditorium to learn more about cicadas and their life histories.