By the time you read this story, tens of thousands of cicadas may have already appeared in the Eastern Panhandle, filling the air with their buzzing. The emergence of Brood 10 of the 17-year cicada is a dramatic natural event.
Many kinds of insects live longer than you might imagine. The familiar “annual” cicadas that make the trees ring at the end of every summer have already spent several years underground in their immature form. But there’s more to the seventeen-year cicada drama than longevity.
After seventeen years of feeding on the juices of tree roots underground, legions of immature cicadas start to dig upwards until they’re just below the surface, waiting for a mysterious signal. Then one night in late April or early May, when the soil has warmed to just the right temperature, they emerge from underground by the hundreds and head for the nearest tree or other upright surface. Upward and onward they all climb. When they reach a secure spot to anchor themselves, they stop. Their skins split down the back. From the husks of these wingless, crawling adolescents emerge pale creatures whose soft wings slowly unfurl. They grab onto the empty husk with their soft legs and hang there all night.
This most dangerous and vulnerable moment of their lives is over by morning. They have now hardened into black, inch-and-a-half long insects with ruby-red eyes and orange-veined wings. Now at the apex of their lives, they deserve the scientific name, Magicicada—magic cicada.
This synchronized emergence is the seventeen-year cicada’s strategy for survival. Their sheer numbers protect them, a strategy known as predator satiation. These insects are defenseless. They neither bite, stink, nor sting. They’re tasty, nutritious, and easy to catch. Animals of all types — including fish, turtles, snakes, chipmunks, birds, and foxes — feast on cicadas. All will gobble up cicadas by the dozens or feed them to their own young. But every appetite has a limit and these predators will quickly consume so many cicadas they can’t swallow one more. Meanwhile, the remaining hordes of these insects are free to fly around, sing, mate, and lay eggs.
A Note About Dogs & Cicadas
According to the American Kennel Club, Cicadas are not poisonous for dogs and eating a few is not cause for worry. However, the hard skeleton is not digestible and many dogs will find these crunchy insect treats irresistible and overindulge, which can lead to severe abdominal pain, vomiting, or diarrhea.
Doug Pifer is an artist, naturalist, and writer. He has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State and has been an editor and art educator. His illustrations have appeared in various books and magazines and he has been a contributor to The Observer for several years. He lives with his wife and assorted animals on 5.7 acres in a historic farmhouse near Shepherdstown.By Doug Pifer