Posted by Allison Boyer

cicada tracker

Recently, I posted about how Tamagotchis are making a comeback, and today I have another blast-from-the-past story for you. Any day now, the cicadas are coming! The North American genus of this insect, Magicicada, emerges from the ground only once every 17 years, and this year Radiolab is tracking the U.S. East Coast invasion of this bug with Cicada Tracker, a website that teaches you how to help them predict the emergence of the brood, report when you start seeing bugs, and learn more about cicadas and their life cycle.

Cicadas work on a 13 to 17 year emergence cycle, depending on the specific type you’re dealing with. The creepy crawlies we’re going to see soon are part of Magicicada Brood II, a species that hasn’t been above ground since 1996.

To put things into perspective, in 1996 we were paying $1.22 for a gallon of gas, getting excited for the upcoming Olympics in Atlanta, checking out a brand new website called eBay, watching The X Files, and making mixed tapes that included “Wannabe,” “Macarena,” and “Ironic.” A lot has changed since we last saw you, little guys.

Most of their lives, cicadas live underground sleeping and sucking on tree roots to survive. Mother Nature’s alarm clock goes off when the ground is consistently 64° F at depths of 8 inches. At that point, which will likely happen in May, it will be a buffet for birds, squirrels, lizards, fish, and lots of other hungry animals. Cicadas don’t have a defense mechanism other than their numbers; there are literally so many of them that predators can’t possibly eat them all.

And yes, in case you were wondering, you can eat them too. Some websites even have cicada recipes. Count me out on that one!

Once you start to see bugs, you can tell the Cicada Tracker scientists to help researchers follow their emergence. After about a week, the insects will have shed their exoskeletons, creating a crunchy blanket on the ground, and they’ll be singing at full force. What do cicadas sound like you ask? Give it a few weeks and you’ll know! These insects have a 7 kHz mating buzz. In fact, a chorus of them is louder than a lawnmower!

And why are they making so much noise, you ask? They’re lovesick! After nearly two decades underground, male cicadas emerge to produce a mating call that can be heard by female cicadas up to a mile away. With estimates anticipating the emergence at nearly 1 billion cicadas per quare mile, those on the North East Coast should get some extra ZzZ’s, as the symphony will be sure to last for a couple of weeks. That’s anything but romantic if you ask me.

Although these bugs might be annoying an do some damage to any young plants in your garden when females lay their eggs, they’ll pretty much be gone completely by the beginning of July. Then, other than a few oddball stragglers who show up on “off” years, we won’t see this specific species again for another 17 years.

But keep in mind that depending on where you live, you might see cicadas again much sooner. There are other broods in the ground as well, on different life cycles. You can check this chart to see when to expect these insects in your area.

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Allison Boyer is the Online Education Coordinator for NMX University, where you can learn more about blogging, podcasting, web TV, and social business. She also runs the food blog The PinterTest Kitchen with her mom and sister.