In 1996, the top box office film, “Independence Day” wasn’t the only invasion by bizarre creatures, nor was the remix resurrection of the “Macarena” the only sound grating upon the ear drums of Americans on the East Coast. The Brood II cicadas arose from the soil in screeching droves that year.
Now, they’re back.
Brood II cicadas (Magicicada septendecim) are one of 15 groups of cicadas that burst from the bowels of the Earth in decades-long cycles. Brood II pops up every 17 years, whereas the related species M. tredecim and M. neotredecim show up every 13 years. Brood II lives east of the Appalachians from North Carolina to Upstate New York.
The first of the 2013 batch of Brood II emerged in North Carolina in late April, according to CicadaMania. North Carolina host the southern-most population of Brood II cicadas. The insects depend on soil temperature to trigger emergence, so the southern cicadas tend to emerge first.
As soil temperatures approach a steady 64 degrees Fahrenheit, the cicadas build small cones on the surface where they will soon emerge. Once the soil is a steady 64 degrees eight inches below the surface, the cicadas rise en masse. NPR’s Radiolab provides directions for building a soil temperature gauge. Citizens scientists can use these gauges to predict emergence, then report the first rise of the Brood II cicadas on Radiolab’s website.
Entomologists suggest that the cicadas swarming behavior helps them survive. By only popping up every 13 or 17 years they become less of a habitual target for predators, many of which have a shorter life span than the cicadas. Swarming also keeps them safe, since it can overwhelm the ability of predators to eat them all.
However, the best laid schemes of Magicicada often go awry. Numerous species make a meal of the insects despite their long-term planning. Racoons and squirrels will even try to start the feast early by digging into the pre-emergence cones built by the cicadas. By mid-April of this year, predators in New Jersey had already started excavating the cicadas’ burrows, reported CicadaMania.
Wildlife aren’t the only creatures looking forward to a cicada snack. Humans make a meal of the insects as well. The best cicadas are the recently emerged “tenerils.” Their shells are still soft and they can be cooked up like tiny shrimp.
A few years ago when the cicadas emerged where I live in Columbia, Missouri, an ice cream shop, Sparky’s, made a frozen treat from the cicadas. The cicada special sold out almost immediately. I didn’t get a chance to try the insect ice cream, though I did feed dozens of the winged horde to the bluegill in my pond (see the video). Cicadas make excellent fish bait, so even if anglers don’t care to chomp on cicadas directly, they can be used to catch dinner.
Magicicada in Illinois (Zzaakk, Wikimedia Commons)