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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cicada Wake-Up Call

Air Date: Week of

Aileen LeBlanc reports on the end of a cyclical 17-year deep sleep for cicadas in parts of Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The insects have emerged from the soil by the hundreds of millions to sing and mate. The infestation has residents running for cover.


(A door opens, shuts)

JIMMY: Look at this, mom!

MOM: Jimmy! Get that box of locust shells out of here.

JIMMY: Gee, Mom. They're not shells, they're exoskeletons. And they're not locusts, they're cicadas.

MOM: Whatever they are, they're in my kitchen!

(Horror music)

MOM: And that one's alive! It's two-and-a-half inches long, black, with wings and big orange eyes! Where's my --

JIMMY: Mom, no!

(Horror music continues amidst squirting sounds)

MOM: Drat! Air freshener.

(Door opens, shuts)

DAD: (coughs) Whoa, wha -- that's got to be the best-smelling box of cicada exoskeletons, ever! (Laughs)

JIMMY: Gee, Dad, you are hip!

DAD: Well, I've done my homework, that's all. Because out that door, hundreds, millions, billions of these insects are taking over. Like aliens. We're calling a town meeting. We're calling the Army.

JIMMY: No, Dad!

DAD: If it eats up all the trees we'll die!

MOM: Just keep them out of my kitchen!

DAD: My trees!

(Horror music up and under)

CURWOOD: Yes, it's that time. They've been waiting patiently underground for 17 years, burrowing tiny tunnels and feeding on the roots of trees. This year in parts of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, the wait is over, and the 17-year periodical cicadas have emerged just long enough to start the cycle all over again. Aileen LeBlanc of WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, reports.

LEBLANC: The last time the 17-year cicadas came out in the Dayton area, Bruce Bodo was working for a lawn care company. He and his buddy had finished mowing for the day and they got out their weed trimmers to take care of the details.

BODO: We fired up the weed eaters. My buddy started his trimming first, and I saw him about 2 seconds later running through the back yards waving his arms and the weed eater and -- what's up with him? I couldn't understand this. Fired up my weed eater, and I found out, like, 2 seconds flat, 'cause the sound of the string spinning sounds exactly like them, and they were attracted to it by the thousands. (Laughs)

(Cicadas humming)

LEBLANC: This year, half of Ohio is overrun with the 17-year cicadas. Here in the Scotia Trail State Park near Chillicothe, you can hear them long before you see them. At a distance, the hum is like a hovering spaceship. After 17 years the cicadas are interested only in singing and mating, and the song, which is a nonstop pervasive scream, is a come-hither call from the males to the females. Gene Kritski is an entomologist who has been studying the cicadas for 23 years. He says that in this forest, millions of male insects are singing for their first date.

KRITSKI: And what's going on is, the males, about 4 to 5 days after they've emerged, the males start singing to find a mate. And they gather in trees in what we call chorusing centers, so a whole bunch of males get together. They start singing, and it's that increase in sound that you hear. Females fly into the trees, apparently select the mate probably by sight. They copulate. Unsuccessful males, after a few sings, if you will, say this tree's not very good, let's go to the next one. It's almost like going to a singles bar: well, this place isn't very good, let's go to the next one down the street. And so, as the sound dies down, if you look at the top of the trees you'll see males flying from tree to tree to reestablish a new chorusing center.

LEBLANC: The cicadas are not only in the tops of trees. One bug lands on Gene Kritski, thank goodness. He picks it off his sleeve, and we get a close-up look and a close-up screech.

(Cicada screams)

LEBLANC: The bug is mostly black, about an inch long with transparent, orangey wings and little beady red eyes.

(To Kritski) Is that a male or a female?

KRITSKI: This is a male. Only the males make sound.

(Cicada humming)

KRITSKI: And if you peel back the wings, you can actually see their sound-making structure. It's right here. You see the timbal. It's located right there.

LEBLANC: Right behind the wing?

KRITSKI: Right behind the wing. These sort of ribs.

LEBLANC: And how does it make the sound?

KRITSKI: They actually inflate it with air and it vibrates back and forth. It's got little ribs in it. It's analogous to back in the '60s, when we needed to make thunder sounds at the high school plays, we used to take sheet metal and sort of wobble it back and forth. It's like a whole bunch of little rigid devices that they're just moving back and forth.

(Close-up cicada song)

LEBLANC: And the male, it's a mating call.

KRITSKI: It's a mating call. Well, there's 2 calls. Right now, because I'm handling this one, males make a sort of a squawk sound. And we think that's a warning to birds. If you look at the inside of this thing, you'll find that the abdomen is filled mostly with air for a male, so the abdomen serves as a sort of resonating chamber, resonating sounds, increasing the volume. The female, on the other hand, is filled with eggs. So birds know that if they grab a male and it squawks, they let it go.

LEBLANC: The reason the periodical cicadas have a 17-year, or 13 years in a few cases, life cycle, remains a mystery, says Kritski. Some think that it's a plot to avoid parasites. Some thing that the hardships of the Ice Age may have led to the long underground encampment. But the fact is that 17 years ago the eggs for these cicadas were laid in the new growth of these trees. And now they have emerged from their underground tunnels. When they seek their partners, the nymphs leave their tan skins behind, still clinging to the tree's trunks and leaves.

KRITSKI: This is one of the nymphal skins. It's the remains of the immature that crawl out of the ground. If you look all through the ground here, you'll see we're surrounded by little holes. Here's one here. Another one here, here. About the same diameters as the little fat pencils we used in first grade. Out of those, usually at the end of the day, or during the evening, the cicada nymph would crawl out of the hole, find an upright structure that's usually the closest tree, the tree where it grew up, climbs up the tree, braces itself like you see here with this one, and then splits the back and out of that comes the white adult cicada. Over about an hour and a half period, the cicada will slowly pull itself out, almost looks like it's doing a headstand, if you will, and then curves around, grabs the skin, pulls out its abdomen, sits there expanding the wings. It slowly darkens over another 45 minutes.

LEBLANC: Even though there are billions of cicadas in this part of Ohio, very little or no damage will be done to the local trees. The cicadas, too busy with singing and mating, eat hardly anything. They can do damage to young saplings because the females will make slits in tender twigs when depositing their eggs. But having experienced my first 17-year cicada emergence, I've learned a few lessons from this unique creature to the eastern US. Your ears can tend to ring after spending an afternoon at a cicada serenade. They will land on you, but they don't bite. They are not locusts. And save your weed eating task for a few more weeks.

(Close-up cicada song amidst background humming)

LEBLANC: For Living on Earth, I'm Aileen LeBlanc, Scotia Trail State Park, Ohio.

(Sitcom music up and under)

JIMMY: Mom, look at this!

MOM: Jimmy! Why, you've collected a box of periodic cicada exoskeletons!

JIMMY: Yeah!

MOM: Remember how people used to think they were locusts?

JIMMY: Mm hm.

DAD: (Laughs) And what's important, son, is to realize that this is not a
disaster. It's an event.

MOM: Besides, it's only one month in 17 years. It happens, and it goes

DAD: (Laughs) Not like our little Jimmy.

JIMMY: What was that, Dad?

DAD: I said, that's just like our little Jimmy, looking through that alien appearance to see that wondrous insect inside. (Laughs)

JIMMY: Mulder's right, Dad. The truth is out there.

DAD: (Laughs) Ah, yes. Who's Mulder?

(Theme from X-Files up and under)

CURWOOD: And thanks to WKSU for our family skit.



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