East about to be overrun by billions of cicadas - WSLS 10 NBC in Roanoke/Lynchburg Va

East about to be overrun by billions of cicadas

Posted: Updated:
A 13-year cicada peers over a ledge in Chapel Hill, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome) A 13-year cicada peers over a ledge in Chapel Hill, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
WASHINGTON -

Any day now, billions of cicadas with bulging red eyes will crawl out of the earth after 17 years underground and overrun the East Coast. The insects will arrive in such numbers that people from North Carolina to Connecticut will be outnumbered roughly 600-to-1. Maybe more.

Scientists even have a horror-movie name for the infestation: Brood II. But as ominous as that sounds, the insects are harmless. They won't hurt you or other animals. At worst, they might damage a few saplings or young shrubs. Mostly they will blanket certain pockets of the region, though lots of people won't ever see them.

"It's not like these hordes of cicadas suck blood or zombify people," says May Berenbaum, a University of Illinois entomologist.

They're looking for just one thing: sex. And they've been waiting quite a long time.

Since 1996, this group of 1-inch bugs, in wingless nymph form, has been a few feet underground, sucking on tree roots and biding their time. They will emerge only when the ground temperature reaches precisely 64 degrees. After a few weeks up in the trees, they will die and their offspring will go underground, not to return until 2030.

"It's just an amazing accomplishment," Berenbaum says. "How can anyone not be impressed?"

And they will make a big racket, too. The noise all the male cicadas make when they sing for sex can drown out your own thoughts, and maybe even rival a rock concert. In 2004, Gene Kritsky, an entomologist at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, measured cicadas at 94 decibels, saying it was so loud "you don't hear planes flying overhead."

There are ordinary cicadas that come out every year around the world, but these are different. They're called magicicadas — as in magic — and are red-eyed. And these magicicadas are seen only in the eastern half of the United States, nowhere else in the world.

There are 15 U.S. broods that emerge every 13 or 17 years, so that nearly every year, some place is overrun. Last year it was a small area, mostly around the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee. Next year, two places get hit: Iowa into Illinois and Missouri; and Louisiana and Mississippi. And it's possible to live in these locations and actually never see them.

This year's invasion, Brood II, is one of the bigger ones. Several experts say that they really don't have a handle on how many cicadas are lurking underground but that 30 billion seems like a good estimate. At the Smithsonian Institution, researcher Gary Hevel thinks it may be more like 1 trillion.

Even if it's merely 30 billion, if they were lined up head to tail, they'd reach the moon and back.

"There will be some places where it's wall-to-wall cicadas," says University of Maryland entomologist Mike Raupp.

Strength in numbers is the key to cicada survival: There are so many of them that the birds can't possibly eat them all, and those that are left over are free to multiply, Raupp says.

But why only every 13 or 17 years? Some scientists think they come out in these odd cycles so that predators can't match the timing and be waiting for them in huge numbers. Another theory is that the unusual cycles ensure that different broods don't compete with each other much.

And there's the mystery of just how these bugs know it's been 17 years and time to come out, not 15 or 16 years.

"These guys have evolved several mathematically clever tricks," Raupp says. "These guys are geniuses with little tiny brains."

Past cicada invasions have seen as many as 1.5 million bugs per acre. Of course, most places along the East Coast won't be so swamped, and some places, especially in cities, may see zero, says Chris Simon of the University of Connecticut. For example, Staten Island gets this brood of cicadas, but the rest of New York City and Long Island don't, she says. The cicadas also live beneath the metro areas of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.

Scientists and ordinary people with a bug fetish travel to see them. Thomas Jefferson once wrote about an invasion of this very brood at Monticello, his home in Virginia.

While they stay underground, the bugs aren't asleep. As some of the world's longest-lived insects, they go through different growth stages and molt four times before ever getting to the surface. They feed on a tree fluid called xylem. Then they go aboveground, where they molt, leaving behind a crusty brown shell, and grow a half-inch bigger.

The timing of when they first come out depends purely on ground temperature. That means early May for southern areas and late May or even June for northern areas.

The males come out first — think of it as getting to the singles bar early, Raupp says. They come out first as nymphs, which are essentially wingless and silent juveniles, climb on to tree branches and molt one last time, becoming adult winged cicadas. They perch on tree branches and sing, individually or in a chorus. Then when a female comes close, the males change their song, they do a dance and mate, he explained.

The males keep mating ("That's what puts the 'cad' in 'cicada,'" Raupp jokes) and eventually the female lays 600 or so eggs on the tip of a branch. The offspring then dive-bomb out of the trees, bounce off the ground and eventually burrow into the earth, he says.

"It's a treacherous, precarious life," Raupp says. "But somehow they make it work."

  • Floydfest attracts people from all walks of life

    Floydfest attracts people from all walks of life

    Wednesday, July 23 2014 11:26 PM EDT2014-07-24 03:26:58 GMT
    FloydFest 13 kicked off on Wednesday. Thousands of people from different walks of life will attend various events. Some come to the music festival to escape the monotony of everyday living."
    FloydFest 13 kicked off on Wednesday. Thousands of people from different walks of life will attend various events. Some come to the music festival to escape the monotony of everyday living."

  • Official: Air Algerie flight 'probably crashed'

    Official: Air Algerie flight 'probably crashed'

    Thursday, July 24 2014 12:39 PM EDT2014-07-24 16:39:55 GMT
    The official Algerian news agency says an Air Algerie flight from Burkina Faso to Algiers has disappeared from the radar.
    An Air Algerie flight carrying 116 people from Burkina Faso to Algeria's capital disappeared from radar early Thursday over northern Mali, officials said. 
  • GM profit 2Q falls 85 pct. on recall costs

    GM profit 2Q falls 85 pct. on recall costs

    Thursday, July 24 2014 12:35 PM EDT2014-07-24 16:35:56 GMT
    General Motors says second-quarter profit fell 85 percent as recall costs chopped $1.5 billion from the bottom line.
    Recall expenses chopped $1.5 billion from General Motors' bottom line in the second quarter, as it added up the costs of repairs for nearly 30 million cars and set aside funds to compensate victims of small-car crashes.
  • Trending StoriesTrending StoriesMore>>

  • 77-year-old questioned, defended as true Marine after NFL player takes his photo

    77-year-old questioned, defended as true Marine after NFL player takes his photo

    Tuesday, July 22 2014 1:58 PM EDT2014-07-22 17:58:35 GMT
    (WMC) - It was a story that made its rounds on social media. On a recent flight DeAngelo Williams, Mid-Southerner and running back for the Carolina Panthers, gave his first-class plane seat to a 77-year-old
    Family members are upset and hurt that their relative, James Wesley Bolden, is being called a liar and "a fake."
  • Largest companies by revenue in each state

    Largest companies by revenue in each state

    Thursday, July 10 2014 8:01 PM EDT2014-07-11 00:01:10 GMT
    Broadview Networks recently decided to find out the biggest -- by revenue -- company in each state in the US.The company used the Fortune 500 list to start with, but needed data by state, so it turned to Hoover's.With data from that company, they were able to search through each state's list of companies and then find the largest -- by revenue.Just flip through the list above and see who is the biggest in each state, what town they are based and their revenue.
    Broadview Networks recently decided to find out the biggest -- by revenue -- company in each state in the US.The company used the Fortune 500 list to start with, but needed data by state, so it turned to Hoover's.With data from that company, they were able to search through each state's list of companies and then find the largest -- by revenue.Just flip through the list above and see who is the biggest in each state, what town they are based and their revenue.
  • No swimming at some NC beaches due to high bacteria levels

    No swimming at some NC beaches due to high bacteria levels

    Wednesday, July 23 2014 12:36 PM EDT2014-07-23 16:36:19 GMT
    A map of the swimming areas along the NC coast that are affected by the recent high levels of bacteria.A map of the swimming areas along the NC coast that are affected by the recent high levels of bacteria.
    Six advisories and three alerts were issued against swimming Tuesday at nine ocean-side sites along the coast of North Carolina.
    Six advisories and three alerts were issued against swimming Tuesday at nine ocean-side sites along the coast of North Carolina.
Powered by WorldNow

WSLS 10, P.O. Box 10
Roanoke, VA 24022-0010

Telephone: 540.981.9110
Fax: 540.343.3157
Email: news@wsls.com

Can't find something?
Powered by WorldNow
All content © Copyright 2000 - 2014 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC. A Media General Company.