Cicadas are part of the music of summer. Male cicadas attract females by rubbing together drum-like organs called tymbals. The loud metallic music, which is amplified by the insect’s abdomen, can produce sounds up to 95 decibels. That’s the loudest sound produced by any insect; louder than the music played by heavy metal musicians (also used to attract females). And, like a rock concert, sustained exposure to cicada songs could cause permanent hearing damage—if the cicada were perched on your shoulder.
Cicada chatter was seemingly everywhere in the summer of 2013. It was the year when the Magicicada, or 17-year cicada, emerged along the Eastern seaboard. These so-called periodical cicadas are unique for several reasons. They have long prime-numbered lifecycles of 13 or 17 years, they emerge in masses and, when they do, the males click their little hearts out.
About that lifecycle: female cicadas lay rice-shaped eggs under twigs and plant stems. After 6 to 10 weeks, the eggs hatch into nymphs which drop to the ground, burrow into the soil, and dig into tree roots where they suck sap through their straw-like mouths. Thirteen or seventeen years later, the nymphs have had their fill. They tunnel to the surface, undergo partial metamorphosis, and emerge as winged adults. After all that, cicadas only live 4 to 6 weeks. The females lay eggs and die and the cycle begins again.
Although they are commonly (and mistakenly) called 13-year or 17-year locusts, cicadas are not locusts, which are a type of grasshopper. Because of the locust reference, early settlers in New England viewed the periodic cicada appearances with a sense of Biblical dread. But members of the Onondaga Nation, who lived near Syracuse, were thankful for the emergence. According to oral histories, cicadas rescued the tribe from famine in the distant past.
As the Onondaga knew, and many Asian cultures understand, cicadas make good eating. Related to shrimp, crawfish, and crab, cicadas are high-protein, low-carb critters. Eaten raw or boiled, the taste has been compared to asparagus, popcorn, and piney shrimp. Mmmmm. With billions of them emerging from the ground and every 13 or 17 years, it’s easy to see how the Magicicada made for some happy mealtimes when other food was scarce.
There are 150 species of non-periodic cicadas in North America, that emerge every year. But there are only 7 species with 13- or 17-year lifecycles. The emergence is over for 2013, so it’s time to start preparing the next show. Set your alarms for 2026 and 2030.