Every 17 years something wild and crazy happens in Connecticut. Colonies of red-eyed insects known as “periodical cicadas” spring forth from underground.
The last time periodical cicadas appeared in Connecticut was in May and June 1996. This year, the cicadas, known as “Brood II,” are expected to emerge along the East Coast, from North Carolina to Connecticut, when the soil temperature gets above 64° Fahrenheit. Colonies of cicadas have already been spotted in Virginia. None have yet been reported in Connecticut.
In 1996, periodical cicadas (pronounced either si-kah’-dahs or si-kay’-das) were spotted in New Haven, Hartford, and Middlesex counties. However, they could show up in any area of the state where there are deciduous trees.
Periodical cicadas are about an inch long, have a black dorsal thorax, translucent wings with orange veins, and red eyes. They aren’t hard to spot because when they come above ground they emerge in huge colonies by the thousands.
The cicadas do not bite or sting, nor do they damage garden plantings or trees, according to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). People may see the red-eyed bugs laying eggs in small twigs, but DEEP advises not to destroy them with insecticides.
Nearly all periodical cicadas spend 17 years underground as juveniles before emerging above ground for a short adult stage. The cicadas are synchronized, so that groups in the same area age at the same time.
While the cicadas live underground, they feed on fluids from the roots of deciduous forest trees.
After 17 years, the “nymphs” make their way above ground. Nymphs emerge in huge numbers, a survival trait called “predator satiation,” and live in nearby vegetation as they develop into adults.
The nymphs molt and then spend about six days in leaves waiting for their exoskeletons to harden. The first week after emergence they are easy prey for birds, squirrels and cats.
Adult periodical cicadas, called imagoes, live only a few weeks. Their single purpose in life is reproduction. After mating, the female cicada cuts V-shaped slits in the bark of young trees and lays approximately 20 rice-shaped eggs in each slit, for a total of about 600 eggs.
After about six to 10 weeks, the eggs hatch and the newborn nymphs begin to feed on tree fluids. They then drop to the ground where they burrow until they find roots to feed on and then begin another 17-year cycle underground.
People will often hear the cicadas before seeing them. The males sing songs in choruses to attract mates using their tymbals, drum-like organs found in their abdomens. The songs are very loud and have distinctive buzzing and ticking sounds, like a child’s click toy. Some colonies of male cicadas are so loud they can be heard a mile away.
Receptive females respond with timed wing clicks, attracting the males for mating. While they make some noise, they are much quieter than the males.
After this year’s emergence, periodical cicadas will not be heard from again until 2030.
For centuries, periodical cicadas have amazed scientists and nature lovers because of their synchronous mass emergence, lengthy life cycle, and large male choruses. Cultures such as the ancient Chinese regarded them as a symbol of rebirth.
There are more than 170 species of cicadas in North America, and more than 2,000 species around the world. Cicadas exist on every continent but Antarctica.
However, most cicadas, called “annual cicadas,” do not spend their lives underground, which makes the periodical cicada rarer and more interesting to observers.
Periodical cicadas are considered a delicacy by some who like to cook them and eat them. Jenna Jadin at the University of Maryland has published a recipe brochure titled Cicada-licious, which provides recipes for dishes such as Shanghai Cicadas and Cicada Dumplings.
For anyone specially interested in finding cicadas in Connecticut, they most likely can be spotted at Hubbard Park in Meriden, Ragged Mountain in Southington and Berlin, and Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden, according to Chris Maier, an entomologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.
Dr. Maier is conducting a cicada population survey, particularly in areas where cicadas were not recorded in previous years — like Weston. He is concerned that Connecticut’s periodical cicada colonies are constantly threatened by loss of habitat due to development. A few colonies seen in 1996 may not appear this year because they are covered by pavement or buildings.
Dr. Maier is asking anyone who comes across a colony of cicadas to contact him at 203-974-8476 or at [email protected] gov.
The DEEP Wildlife Division is also seeking volunteers to help investigate the range of periodical cicadas in Connecticut. Volunteers are needed to visit multiple sites during the day and during good weather, listening for the presence of cicadas, collecting individuals for positive documentation, and collecting GPS coordinates of locations sampled.
The study area is primarily north of Meriden and within the Connecticut River Valley. Volunteers will be provided with training in the identification of the cicadas and the protocols followed during the emergence.
To be a part of the survey team, contact [email protected] or call the Wildlife Division’s Sessions Woods office at 860-675-8130.
To get a good look at periodical cicadas, a live webcam has been set up online featuring Brood II cicadas in a terrarium crawling around a miniature White House.
Click below to hear what periodical cicadas sound like. For more information visit cicadamania.com.