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Sensational Cicadas

In North America right now, a rare historic event is taking place. Periodical cicadas are coming out in force. Brood XIX and XIII are both emerging together for the first time since 1803. Isn’t that amazing?

Probably, after reading that introduction, unless you are an entomologist (a person who studies insects), you do not really know what is happening. What is a brood? What is a cicada (si-KAY-duh)? And why are these cicadas called periodical? And what’s up with the letters XIX and XIII? Those are all great questions. This issue of Discovery is dedicated to helping you learn about cicadas.

What Is a Cicada?

A cicada is a large bug with really “buggy” eyes, wings, and a fat body. There are more than 3,000 species of cicadas. Many times, you will find the “empty shell” of a cicada hanging on the side of a tree or a building. The cicada life cycle is extremely interesting. There are certain groups of cicadas called broods. A brood is a group that matures and comes out in a certain area at the same time. While most cicadas come out once a year, other broods are called periodical cicadas. That means they come out after a certain number of years. Periodical broods are often given a number to identify when they will emerge. This number is usually written in Roman numerals. Some periodical cicadas come out every 4 or 8 years. The most famous periodical cicadas come out every 13 and 17 years. So, this year, in several states in the eastern part of the United States, there are two periodical broods, Brood XIX (19) and Brood XIII (13), that are both flying around as you read this article.

There Are So Many

If you live where cicadas emerge, you have probably seen them flying all over the place. That is because all the cicadas in a brood come out at once. People who study cicadas say that about 1.5 million of these insects can emerge at the same time…on a single acre of land! That means if you have a farm with 100 acres, you potentially have 150 million cicadas. When the numbers are added for the entire range of land where Broods XIX and XIII are emerging, it could be over one trillion cicadas. Needless to say, anyone driving a car in a brooding area will probably need to wash it near the end of the summer, because they will have slammed into hundreds of these buggy insects.

What Is That Noise?

One of the most fascinating features of the cicada is the extremely loud noise it makes. Only the males make noise. On each side of its body, just under the wing, the male cicada has a membrane called a tymbal. The cicada vibrates this tymbal very fast to produce several different sounds. If you have ever picked up a live cicada, you are probably familiar with the loud clicking sound that the bug makes. While cicadas sound “mean,” they are really quite harmless. They hardly ever bite and they do not have stingers. They rely on their loud noises and ability to fly to elude predators. 

Most likely you have heard them make other sounds as well. When cicadas emerge, the males gather together in trees and make a “screaming,” “screeching,” or “loud cricket” sound. This sound is designed to entice females to come visit them in the tree. The sound that comes from the bug’s pair of tymbals is one of the loudest sounds that any insect makes. In fact, the sound can reach over 100 decibels. Basically, that means a cicada can be as loud as a jackhammer, chainsaw, forklift, subway train, a car horn, or your car radio turned up to the loudest possible volume. 

Think about that. Many people buy very expensive speakers to put in their cars. They want their music to be heard by many cars all around them. These speakers are designed by companies that employ brilliant engineers to make speakers that can get the loudest, best sound. Yet, the cicada, that is usually only about one inch long, with its pair of tymbals, can make a sound as loud as most car speakers. If large car speakers that have lots of wires and magnets are designed by intelligent engineers, then who invented the astounding design of the super-loud cicada?
The Grand Designer of the Universe, the God of the Bible, is the audio Engineer responsible for the cicada’s speaker system.

How Do They Taste?

Have you ever considered eating a cicada? It might surprise you to know that many people enjoy eating them. There are a variety of ways chefs cook them. You can pan fry them, toast them to put in a salad, sauté them, or bake them. Though I would not know, and I doubt you would either, the report is that they have a “nutty flavor” and a nice little “crunch.” Does that sound gross to you? Remember in the Bible, when we read about John the baptizer, the text explains that he ate “locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6). Sometimes cicadas are called locusts, but they are most likely not the same kind of locusts John ate. The kind he ate would probably be more like what most of us would think of as grasshoppers. Still, a bug is a bug when it comes to eating it for lunch, so if it was good enough for John, then maybe it would not taste that bad. In fact, if you happen to be down in the city of New Orleans, you could visit the Bug Appetit Café and have a special dish of wild cicadas prepared for you by the local chef.

Time to Go

The adult stage of a periodical cicada only lasts about six weeks. In that time, the males and females get together, the females lay eggs in holes they drill in tree limbs, then the adult cicadas die. After about six more weeks, the eggs hatch and the tiny cicada nymphs fall to the ground. Once there, the nymphs burrow into the ground and find tree roots. These roots have a liquid in them that the nymphs live on the entire time they are underground. The periodical cicadas will stay underground for 13 or 17 years (depending on the brood). Then, exactly 13 or 17 years later, they will dig their way out of the ground, shed their nymph skin, and begin their brief adult lives, just like their parents did earlier. How does the little nymph underground know exactly when to come back? This could not have happened by accident or chance. Only God could have programmed these sensational cicadas with a perfect internal clock! 


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