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In the News: A Red-eyed Swarm

May 14, 2013
close-up image of cicada

They’re ready for their close-up! Photo by Jason Means.

By Helen Chappell

We’ve got another newsworthy sign up in our exhibit halls. This time, we’re talking about periodical cicadas. Whether you’ve found your way here from our QR code or by other means, welcome!

This summer, the East Coast is playing host to Magicicada sp. members of “Brood II,” one of 15 groups of periodical cicadas that emerge together in huge numbers once every 13 or 17 years. Brood II bugs emerge in 17-year cycles. There are five broods of 17-year cicadas in North Carolina and one brood of 13-year cicadas, though no single brood covers the entire state.

Where can we expect to see this year’s swarm? The News & Observer ran a handy map with their article about the cicadas’ emergence, which featured Museum entomologist Bill Reynolds.

If you’re not in Brood II’s range, you might be wondering where cicadas will emerge next. The New York Times has an interactive tool showing the distributions and cycles of all 15 broods. You can use it to forecast cicada emergence up to the year 2030, or go back in time all the way to 1893, when brood numbering first began. Spoiler alert: North Carolina won’t see periodical cicadas again until 2017, when the 17-year Brood VI invades the mountains.

map showing cicada distribution from NC to NY

Even areas near big cities like New York, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia aren’t immune from the cicada hordes.

These maps aren’t always the most accurate, though, since land use changes (especially the development of former forests) and other factors can diminish cicadas’ numbers in some areas — not to mention that the maps themselves are often based on rough sketches that are almost a century old. At least two projects are underway to update the maps: one sponsored by the National Geographic Society, and another citizen science project led by WNYC’s Radiolab.

The Radiolab project site has instructions for how you can build your own soil temperature sensor, to see if soil temperatures are warm enough in your area for the cicadas to emerge.

If you’re interested in learning more about periodical cicadas’ unique life cycle, the site magicicada.org has tons of information about all seven species. For a more narrative look at their oddities, definitely check out Carl Zimmer’s column in the New York Times.

One of the most fascinating things about cicadas’ life cycle — and a fact I didn’t know until I started researching this project — is that periodical cicadas are actually active underground for the full 17 (or 13) years of their cycle. That means this year’s adult cicadas were born in 1996. They’re old enough to graduate high school!

If the idea of having your yard overrun with a bunch of teenaged insects eager to mate isn’t particularly appealing to you, well, unfortunately there’s not a lot you can do except wait it out. Unless you’re feeling adventurous, in which case I recommend you check out the University of Maryland’s “Cicadalicious” cookbook, found here (it’s a PDF). There are lots more sources on the web for cicada recipes, but I’ve found this to be the most comprehensive, including treats such as soft-shelled cicadas, cicada tacos, and southern cicada tartlets. Why wait until the Museum’s next BugFest to enjoy some exoskeletoned goodness?

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