The Year of the 'Locust' Large broods of 13-year cicadas will emerge this spring

By Errol Castens

By Errol Castens
Daily Journal Oxford Bureau
In a few weeks, Northeast Mississippians could have what passes for a collective case of tinnitus. All day long we’ll be tortured by a constant noise that will be to some a hum, to others a screech, to yet others a roar.
And it’ll all be due to a phenomenon with the ominous name of Brood XIX – periodical cicadas, genus magicicada, often erroneously called “locust.”
“An emergence of periodical cicadas is something that only happens every 13 years, but for much of Northeast Mississippi this is the year,” said Dr. Blake Layton, extension professor of entomology at Mississippi State University. Broods of 17-year cicadas emerge in some northern states, but only 13-year and the less-noticeable annual species are found in the South.
“Periodical cicadas look and behave much differently than the large green annual cicadas we see every year from mid-summer through fall,” Layton said. The creatures are distinguished by their black-and-orange coloring and their red eyes, and by their density – more than a million per acre in some well-drained hardwood forests.
“Finally, there’s the singing of the males – loud and long,” he added.
As weather warms up, people in Mississippi and several nearby states will see the emergence of Brood XIX, which is the geographically largest brood of 13-year cicadas. The ugly bugs – close-up photos could probably yield offers for their own horror movies – will get their bearings and feed on sap for a few days, then get about their real business of mating.
The cicadas, as they transform from pupae to adult form, will shed their “cuticle,” the distinctive shell that often hangs onto trees. But what will be most evident to people in the areas affected will be male cicadas’ mating call, which will continue throughout daylight hours for a couple of weeks in any given location.
Individual calls are audible to humans as much as a quarter-mile away, according to the book “Animal Records” by Mark Carwardine. Measured 60 feet from a tree full of competing cicada males, the noise can register between 80 and 100 decibels – louder than a pneumatic jackhammer, the author asserts.
“Their singing will drown out most other woodland sounds,” Layton said.
That noise is a big issue when planning outdoor events, but it’s not the only one. Adult cicadas fly, so they may end up in food, drink and guests’ hairdos.
Wedding planner Claire Kiamie of Oxford said cicadas will likely not be an issue for her clients.
“Ninety percent of the weddings we do are at night,” she said, adding that the vagaries of Mississippi springtime weather already convince most people to marry indoors anyway.
When Brood XIX has partied its little hearts out, the females will use their knife-like ovipositors to cut into tree branches and insert their eggs. (Some twigs may turn brown, so vulnerable small deciduous trees may need to be covered with fine netting.) About six weeks later, the nymphs will hatch, fall and tunnel into the ground, where they’ll wait 13 years for their own day in the sun.
Lest any cicadaphobic folks breathe too big a sigh of relief, though, Brood XXIII emerges in 2015. Buy your earplugs early.
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@journalinc.com.