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Cicada Armageddon 2024

By: Sandra Nelson

The great cicada Armageddon is about to unfold here in mid Missouri. The recent showers we’ve had have begun to loosen the dry, crusty surface soil, allowing the entombed critters to wiggle free and begin their upward climb from their burrows where, as nymphs, they have been sucking sap from tree roots for as long as 17 years. Within days they will begin what can be thought of as their relentless assault on the quiet life as we know it. 

While that may seem a bit dramatic, because of the sheer numbers of cicadas expected to emerge this year— literally trillions of adult cicadas  — parts of our country will experience what could well be thought of as a form of assault to our senses, especially our ears as the insects blast out their love songs to each other. 

In the next few days, hordes of the hefty 1 ½  to 2 inch long cicada nymphs will slip out of the ground at sunset and immediately look for nearby trees, plants, tall grasses or upright structures to climb. When they find a safe spot, they will attach themselves to it and slip out of their exoskeletons, leaving a thick, crunchy blanket of empty insect shells strewn behind . 

As they emerge, the bodies of the cicadas are soft and white; it takes several hours for their waterproof, antimicrobial wings to unfurl and several days for their bodies to develop into the brownish green insects we recognize as adult cicadas. 

The entire purpose of a cicada's five or six week adulthood is to reproduce. Male cicadas sing in chorus by vibrating their tymbals, which is an organ inside the abdomen of a cicada. The song, which can easily reach a deafening 80 to 100 decibels in volume, then attracts both male and female cicadas to gather together. The females respond with their own song, which is different from the male’s tune. By singing, the females indicate that they are ready for a partner. (Not being overly discriminating females, any partner will do.)  After mating, the female cicadas cut slits in the sides of young tree branches in which to lay their eggs, usually 20 or 30 at a time. In all, females may lay up to 500 eggs. In about 8 weeks, the eggs hatch, ant-like nymphs appear, fall from their branch homes and burrow into the ground where they will remain until it is time for them to resurface. 

Once the adults have finished mating  –  some species of females mate several times, but males only once,  they rarely live for more than a few more days. Once their songs fade away, it signals that the cicadas’ are gone for another year.

Most of the news articles that have been published about the upcoming cicada invasion have focused on why we shouldn’t fear them, on how they aren’t harmful to animals or humans. That, of course, is absolutely accurate. Cicadas are not locusts that swarm together and destroy crops. They do not even have mouth parts for chewing, and unlike bees and wasps, cicadas do not have stingers, so they cannot bite or sting. 

Like all aspects of nature however, cicadas do have a role to play in the environmental web. Because of their burrowing habit, cicadas help aerate soils and help improve water filtration through the soil. They are an important food source for birds and other insect-eating wildlife. As dead cicadas decompose, they add nutrients to the soil. Added to the compost pile, cicada shells feed beneficial bacteria and fungus that are working to break down brown and green matter. 

This year, as the peace of my garden descends into the cacophony of cicadas looking for love, my goal is to simply hear the harmony of nature in concert in my own backyard. I hope  that's what you will hear too.