Have you seen cicada husks lately? Or actual cicadas? These aren’t our annual cicadas yet, these are periodical cicadas, one year too early. Next spring—May 2024—is when Middle Tennessee gets our Big Emergence of 13-year cicadas.
I say “emergence,” not “invasion,” because invasion is a bad thing, but emergence is a normal, natural, functional, wonderful, amazing, and magical thing!
Cicadas are magic!
After all, the genus name for our 13 year species is Magicicada.
But, magic or not, cicadas can’t always count properly. The ones who emerge a year (or more) before or after their due date are called “stragglers.”
For the past few days, stragglers have commanded my undivided attention. They are small, dark, and handsome. They have round, red eyes! And they are fascinating.
These creatures have been underground for the last 12 years as nymphs: immature cicadas.
First, they were teeny, white eggs their mom laid in a twig.
Then, they hatched into teeny, white nymphs who fell to the ground, wriggled into the nearest crevice, and sucked roots.
As they grew, they dug themselves deeper, and specialized in tree roots.
*This does not hurt the tree.*
When they sensed it was Time to Grow / Go Up, they waited for the soil to get warm and wet—usually after rain—then crawled up and out.
Lucky is the cicada who emerges near something high enough to climb right away: a tall plant, a tree trunk, a fence post. They need a safe, vertical spot in order to writhe out of the last casing, and then hang to let gravity help the wings unfurl. It takes hours of quiet concentration to go from beige nymph to black cicada, and with wings that work.
To watch this transformation, get up well before dawn. A UV flashlight can help find the white bodies as they emerge from the husk / exuvia.
I like to find a nymph who has chosen a plant I can snap free to watch at my leisure. Say, a tall violet stem that I can break, put in a holder to retain the original angle, and place it on a table beside a comfy chair.
I bring my tea tray, I read my emails, I take pictures, I watch birds eat every cicada they can find: all while a little animal next to me slowly transforms from creature of the earth to creature of the sky.
If you are not a fan of cicadas, you are not alone. When I gleefully show them in person and online, I hear fear, worry, disgust.
“No!!! The noise!”
“It was like a plague!”
“They attacked me when I mowed the lawn!”
“They made my dog sick!”
“They kill trees!”
To most complaints I want to say, So? This is nature! Nature is full of wonders! We are part of nature!
Yes, a periodical emergence can be loud;
big piles of dead cicadas can stink;
dogs can overindulge in free treats;
motor noises can attract;
and tree twigs can die when females slit the bark to lay eggs inside.
So what? It happens only once every 13 years.
People seem primarily worried about the safety of their trees.
But I worry about the safety of the cicadas.
Cicadas live on tree roots. What happens when we cut down mature shade trees?
Nashville has lost a lot of trees in the past few years: to development, re-development, Secondary Dwelling Units, expanding house footprints, and to our aging, urban canopy.
No tree = no cicadas.
Cicada nymphs can’t just hustle over to the neighbor’s yard if their tree gets cut down. They die.
I doubt the Emergence of 2024 will live up to the hopes of cicada-lovers or to the dread of cicada-haters.
I’ve lived in the same house for the past two 13-year emergences.
In 1998, I couldn’t walk on the sidewalk for days, because every step meant squishing a cicada.
In 2011, I could walk on the sidewalk, but carefully.
I’m worried that in 2023, I’ll be able to walk on any sidewalk and not have to be careful.
Why Cicadas Matter
Cicadas are a crucial part of our ecosystem. They are nutritious eats for anything with a mouth: birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and other insects, arthropods, and decomposers. Also our dogs. Also humans, especially when cicadas are at their tender, teneral stage (while white and soft).
Even their wings, which birds ignore as inedible, are taken by ants to be eaten at home.
Cicadas aerate the soil as they emerge. They improve water filtration. They feed countless creatures. Their dead bodies add nutrients to the soil. They “prune” trees when multiple cicadas slit the same twig when laying eggs. Cicadas are cultural icons around the world. And, their husks make good earrings, though not sturdy ones.
But the big reason that cicadas matter is that they’ve been on this earth longer than we have, they deserve to exist, and they deserve our curiosity and wonder.
Cicadas by Ear
It takes a few days for new cicadas to gear up and sing. Males sing to attract the females. As with all animals and plants, the prime directive for cicadas is to live long enough to reproduce.
We finally started hearing songs on Sunday. I’ve heard what sounds like Magicicada tredecassini (link to song) and also the annual Robinson’s cicada (what I call the Socket Wrench cicada, or if you know what a gragger is, a Gragger cicada, which I wrote about here).
We’ll start seeing the annual species soon. Their husks / exuvia are bigger than periodical versions, and adults will be bigger, less-dark, but just as handsome.
And these too, will be magic.
-“Songs of Insects” is a wonderful website to help ID songs / calls of Crickets, Katydids, Grasshoppers, and Cicadas. Link.
-Cicadamania: charts, maps, IDs, pictures, sounds. And it makes your computer cursor a cicada! Link.
-Cicada Safari: a phone app developed by Dr. Gene Kritsky. Link.
-iNaturalist: please post your observations of cicadas. There’s even a Project devoted to “2023 Magicicada Stragglers” (link).
-“Cicadas are Delightful Weirdos you Should Learn to Love, “Smithsonian. Link.
Cicada posts here at SidewalkNature:
–Cicada Songs: 3 easy-to-learn annual cicada songs in Nashville
–Cicada Drama (about a Cicada Killer wasp).
-and my brief essay, “Naked Ladies and Cicadas” at Hippocampus Magazine
To Avoid Tree Damage During Emergences:
When time to lay eggs, a cicada female looks for deciduous trees in sunshine. With a sharp appendage called an ovipositor, she cuts a slit in the twig and deposits eggs into it. If the twig is thin, the damage may make leaves turn brown. This is called flagging.
If, during a big, periodical emergence, you have a young tree in the sunshine,
and this tree is nearish to trees old enough to have been around during the last periodical emergence,
and if this tree is special,
or in the front yard as curb appeal,
and if you are WORRIED,
you might want to net that tree during the few weeks the adult cicadas are mating.
It all depends on where you live, and how many cicadas are still be alive to emerge nearby.
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Joanna Brichetto is a naturalist and writer in Nashville, the Hackberry-tree capital of the world.
She writes about everyday marvels amid everyday habitat loss at SidewalkNature.com and on Instagram (@Jo_Brichetto); and her essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Ecotone, Fourth Genre, Hippocampus, The Hopper, Flyway, The Common, The Fourth River, and other journals. An almanac of urban nature encounters is forthcoming.
6 thoughts on “Cicada Magic”
And thanks for the violets, which I HOPE to get into the ground/cracks tomorrow – what happened to our rain, anyway?
I was at Owl’s Hill today and the oak tree I was standing under was COVERED in husks. So many! Brought one home for my daughter’s collection of oddities.
I went on Friday and totally forgot to look! Glad you saw a bunch!
great read, thank you.
Thank you, Rachel!
Thank you for sharing. I’ve long said that when I die, the last sound I want to hear is the whirring of cicadas. Which means, of course, I must die in the summer. I’m always relieved when fall comes around…another year ahead! I hope your predictions about 2024 are off, but I fear you are right.
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