It's been 17 long years, but they're coming back again. Cicada Brood XIII is on the verge of emerging from the ground, and swarming all over our villages. Based on the warmth of the ground, which should be a temperature of at least 64 degrees, together with rain moisture content, experts are predicting that the first cicadas will be emerging around May 21 or 22. Then the pesky little flying critters will be flitting about for a couple of weeks after that.
Just about anybody who goes out of the house will be affected, as long as there is a large expanse of ground and some trees around. Maybe if you stood right in the middle of the North Riverside Plaza parking lot, you wouldn't find very many of the cicadas.
They will most be in evidence in parks with large tree populations, of which there are so many, locally. They have survived all these years by living off first grass roots, and then the sap of tree roots. They use needle-like mouth parts to get at the sap. No, they do not use this to sting or bite humans, so put that worry right out of your head, right now. They don't carry diseases that are detrimental to humans, either, so relax.
If you happen to turn over a log or a large stone, you'll see cicadas in their nymph stage squirming, ready to take wing as full adults, and it may remind you for a moment of a scene from some cheesy science fiction movie, with a title like: "They Came from Below!"
Another way you can see that nymph cicadas are about to fly is when little "mud chimneys" appear, rising out of the earth.
The final emergence of the adult cicada is usually at night, when it arises from its nickel-sized hole in the ground, and climbs up a tree trunk, or onto a plant, or even onto a house. Here it separates from its outer skin, or exoskeleton, and what is revealed is its new body with wings, that take a few hours to dry before it can fly away.
This current crop of Periodical Cicadas, going by the genus term Magicicada, are the same ones that tunneled into the ground in 1990. But these teenagers will soon be back, and they'll be looking for mates. The males will be doing it noisily, making that shrill, "screeeee"-ing sound for days and days. The females will be quiet, more or less.
After the males link up, the females walk along, making slits in the tree bark, and laying several hundred eggs. The eggs hatch in about six weeks, and then fall onto the ground, where the baby cicadas tunnel below, and the whole thing starts all over again, with the next cicada crop due in 2024.
The cicadas usually have demonic-looking little red eyes, although a small percentage may have white, pale blue, orange, or even chocolate brown eyes. That is, if you want to get that close to them to check. They grow to a length of 1 to 1.5 inches, and have a black "W" near the tips of their forewings.
If you're into that sort of thing, and want to know how to tell a male cicada from a female cicada, well, get yourself one and look at the underside of the insect. If its back end is round, it's a male. If it has a pointed back end, it's a female. Now you can get one of each, and introduce them to each other.
In late spring, 2004, there was some concern that Cicada Brood X was going to make an appearance in our area, but it turned out that Brood X pretty well confined itself to Ohio. I don't suppose anybody really missed them around here. By the way, the "singing" of these male cicadas was measured at 94 decibels, which compares to a noisy truck, or a blender. Or a noisy truck running over a blender.
Our current teenage cicadas, like their human counterparts, are real party animals, and will be around to whoop it up just in time for the Memorial Day weekend. While only about 1.5 million male cicadas per acre will be "screeeee"-ing for mates, an estimated 5 billion in all will covering northern Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Indiana.
They'll be swarming from tree to tree, and could, conceivably, land in your hair or on your clothes. Back in 1990, I was riding my bicycle east on Uvedale Road in Riverside, and suddenly I heard strange sounds coming from around my collar. While still astride my cycle, I patted at my collar, and a cicada emerged from under each of my collar flaps and flew off. I was startled, but did not lose control of my self-propelled vehicle.
Small, young trees and shrubs are in danger from overpopulation of the cicadas, and they (the trees, not the cicadas) may be protected by covering them with a plastic mesh or cheesecloth. The first instance I saw of this being done was in front of the house at 3726 Cleveland Ave., in Brookfield, on Friday, May 11. The little trees and shrubs should continue to be covered for 6-8 weeks after the cicadas first emerge. Insecticides do not affect them, so don't bother even trying.
Also, it is a good idea to cover ornamental ponds with some sort of a screen, or a plastic mesh, so you don't get a layer of dead or alive cicadas floundering on the surface. If you have your pools filled, clean your pool filters and skimmers very often. They can clog very easily.
Some cicadas are early emergers, tunneling up before the general swarm does. I saw one of those single cicadas, while slowly riding along the Salt Creek Bicycle Trail, just west of the Indiana Harbor Belt underpass, on May 8. It hopped down in front of me and didn't make a sound. Birds just love these early snacks. So do woodpeckers, by the way.
When the full swarms come out and start making their distinctive sound, the birds find other prey. Even they cannot stand the noise. Who wants a meal that tastes good, but sounds bad?
Speaking of tastes, did you know that in some countries, people actually eat cicadas? Residents of Australia, Thailand, Japan and Papua New Guinea all do this. In the past, ancient Greeks and Romans used to eat them. Indians were eating them before and after the colonists started arriving from overseas.
Cicadas are reputed to be a good source of vitamins and protein, and they are low in carbohydrates. Sounds like it'd be a weird, new diet fad here in the States. There are even recipes for cicadas on the Internet. They are supposed to be at their most flavorful when they are first emerged from their ground tunnels.
Back in 1990, Luis Correa, then the manager of Brookfield's Cock Robin Ice Cream Parlor, south of the Brookfield train station, set up letters on the large sign out front of his store. It read: "Coming Soon! Limited Time Only! Chocolate Dipped Cicadas!" He did this just for fun, and nobody took him up on the offer.
Speaking of ancient Romans, again, members of the nobility sometimes wore gold broaches with cicada figures on them, to hold back hair. A modern version might be a fancy cicada hair scrunchy, or an elegant cicada barrette. Am I kidding about this? Maybe not.
In 1990, Kristin Robinson, a fourth-grader at Lincoln School in Brookfield, thought the cicadas were cute and adorable. She liked to hold them, and put them on her face, arms and clothes, earning herself the so-far unchallenged title of Brookfield's Cicada Princess. She probably would've been glad to wear a cicada crown, with real live cicadas on it.
What else are cicadas good for? Well, in China and Japan, they've been used as medicinal cure for earaches. Why not?
Also in China, it is said that shed cicada skins and living, silent nymphs are ground up to make a kind of tea given to noisy babies to quiet them.
Supposedly, if you collect many transparent cicada wings, and place them across your skin, they will stop your skin from tanning. The wings appear to filter out ultraviolet light. Maybe someday there will be a cicada wing SPF lotion on the market.
After the "screeeee"-ing has died away so that you can hear again, you will find millions upon millions of dead cicada exoskeletons in your grass, flowerbeds, and on your sidewalks. Do not worry. They are good for the soil. And, if you can't stand walking across the scattered layer of crunchy carcasses, get out a broom, or a snow shovel, and clear your path, happy in the knowledge that you only have to do this once every 17 years.