They’re baaaaack… finally!

For almost a month I waited—waited for that spaceship-sounding drone from the trees; waited for their bodies to drip from the vegetation and their skins to litter the yard; waited for their delightful shrieks every time I jostle a tree branch. I had seen them mass emerging from the ground in southern Missouri in late April, but just 100 miles north in my hometown it seemed they would never show. Cold, rainy springs must not be to their liking, as it was not until the sun finally broke through and temperatures climbed into the 80s that they finally made their appearance in St. Louis—nearly a month after that mass emergence event further south had me looking and listening daily for one of North America’s most spectacular natural history events, Brood XIX of the periodical cicada!

Finally, on May 21 I saw the first adults of the year at Shaw Nature Reserve not too far from my house (not intending to claim this as the date of their first appearance in my area!). They were not yet singing, but the adults were everywhere, many sitting right next to the skins they had just emerged from the previous evening. I had to travel on business through the southeastern U.S. that following week, and it was while visiting the beautiful MSU campus in Starkville, MS that I got my first taste of their late-afternoon synchronized, pulsating song. Upon my return to St. Louis at the end of the week, the eery drone filled the air as soon as I stepped out of the airport. It had been 13 years since I’d heard that sound, but euphoric recall instantly transported me back to 1998 and 1985 and my experiences with these marvels of evolution.

I don’t know that there is anything I can say about the periodical cicada that hasn’t already been said—repeatedly—by the numerous, more erudite sources that are following this event as if it were the approach of Haley’s comet. I don’t even know for sure which species are in my area and how to tell them apart. All I do know is that the constant droning of their singing is both maddening and amazing—a spectacle to behold for what it is, knowing that it will be the year 2024 before I have my next chance to witness it.

As I write this, I’m sitting in my hotel room in Salem, AR, where the cicadas are even more abundant than around my home in the woods—several stops to check building lights for beetles have ended in frustration because the cicadas were so numerous that they virtually swamped the space on the walls under the lights. There do seem to be two species here—a smaller one with a completely dark underside and the raspy, screeching sound that I am familiar with, and a larger one with the abdominal segments light along the posterior margins and a softer trill that almost reminds me of the song of an American toad. Maybe there are other species mixed in that I have not discerned, but I’ll not concern myself with that. Instead, I will continue to marvel at the extraordinary event unfolding before me, watch it as it cycles out, and chuckle at the complaints of the masses bemoaning their temporary inconveniences.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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21 Responses to They’re baaaaack… finally!

  1. Very nice, Ted. Our first individual showed up yesterday. Looking forward to more!

  2. James C. Trager says:

    Funny how we go to “spaceship” to describe the sound of the symphony of these critters, but have never heard a spaceship to compare.

    A few miles faway from you, I’m hearing mostly two species, but I need to go back and listen to the recordings at magicicada.org to determine if maybe I’m actually hearing all four that may occur in this area’s version of Brood XIX.

    • I’ve heard plenty of TV spaceships🙂

      Just got back from southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, and the songs seem to be of the same two species. Four species all in this same area, or in different parts of the Brood XIX range?

  3. Ani says:

    Wow! An excellent read and amazing pictures! The third one is truly artistic, lovely use of flash!

    • Thanks, Ani! It’s funny, because I took several photos of that last one trying to get an angle where the flash didn’t reflect so much off the wing, and when I saw them on the computer I didn’t like them – too little contrast with the dark background. An example of how sometimes our ideas in the field don’t actually work out how we expect.

      • Ani says:

        Yes, if the wings turned out to be dark, the pattern on the wings brought out by the reflected flash would have gone unnoticed!

      • Dave says:

        Maybe a place for your old point and shoot without the flash as Alex posted on last May.

        • Er, but I like these photos…

          • Dave says:

            Don’t you find the cellophany effect on the wings (presumably from the flash), especially in the lowest, lateral shot to detract from the overall effect?

            • The photos where the flash didn’t bounce off the wing as much don’t look near as good – the black background, black body, and non-reflecting wings made for rather dark, dull, photos. If you’re going for the black background effect (and I was), you basically need the flash off the wings to add contrast.

              The second photo was the best of my not-black-background attempts.

  4. Cicadas have been the talk of the town everywhere I went this week. That is, if you can hear people talk above the sound. I think they may have peaked this week in Kirkwood MO.

  5. Marvin says:

    Back from a weekend at an art fair up in Columbia, MO. To say that the periodic cicadas were numerous would be an understatement. With a large cross section of the general public either attending the art fair or swimming in Stephens Lake, it was funny watching the antics of people trying to evade attack by these killer bugs.

    • Funny—this Missourian was in Arkansas over the weekend, while you the Arkansan were in Missouri🙂

      Today while driving into work, I saw the gate “guard” frantically running from a cicada that happened to be clumsily flying in the vicinity of guard. I think it’s the red eyes that make people think they’re evil!

  6. JasonC. says:

    I’m so jealous🙂

  7. Patrick Coin says:

    Wow, they are almost done here in the lower Piedmont of NC, with the dead bodies piling up under trees with choruses. Emergence started right at the end of April. The ones that are all dark underneath (and behind the eye) with the buzzy song should be M. tredecassini. In my area, it is common, but a little local. Here in NC, the one with the orange abdomen underneath and the alien-like call is M. tredecim, and it is very common and widespread, even in suburban habitats. (I guess you have M. neotredecim in MO as well?) I’ve only found one of the third species in my area, M. tredecula. Maybe I’ll have better luck on that one in 2024.

    • You know, I almost feel guilty for not knowing (or even trying to know) what species are involved – it’s a rare case of me being content to just experience the event without knowing the sordid details.

      That said, I’m sure temptation will finally rule and I’ll end up picking up a few to look at under the scope.

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