Any day now, armies of winged creatures — fresh off a big meal and a 17-year slumber — will make their way back out into the public realm and, before dropping dead, devote themselves to a few weeks of good, old-fashioned lovemaking.
“What a life,” jokes Dennis Patton, horticulture agent at Johnson County K-State Research and Extension.
Indeed, for the brood of periodic cicadas that emerges only once every 17 years in the Kansas City area, existence is not particularly rough. But for the Missouri and Kansas residents who find themselves exposed to the insects’ incessant and noisy mating ritual, things have the potential to get a little unpleasant.
The latest crop of the local 17-year cicadas is expected to emerge any time now, and when it does, it will very likely make a ruckus.
“It could be thousands or millions coming out in a small area and giving a deafening roar, a deafening noise in the trees,” says Rob Lawrence, a forest entomologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. “If you were trying to have some kind of an outdoor event, it might be kind of deafening.”
The 17-year brood is expected to hit parts of Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Iowa, Nebraska and Texas. A separate 13-year group is already beginning to emerge in the Mississippi River Valley, including southeastern Missouri, though there isn’t expected to be an overlap.
Different from the annual cicadas that make yearly appearances during the summer months, the 17-year cicadas are a bit of a novelty. They vary in physical appearance (blackish bodies with stark red eyes, compared to the greenish-black bodies of annual cicadas) and emerge at different times (May and June, compared with July and August for the annuals).
Their mating songs also ring out during daytime hours, often at the warmest time of the day.
In a recent study by a Vanderbilt University hearing and speech scientist, cicadas in Tennessee reached as high as 88 decibels. That’s roughly the equivalent of a food blender, meaning that those living in areas where the cicadas are densely populated should expect a noise nuisance.
If you can forgive the continuous droning, however, the cicadas are actually a rather intriguing bunch.
Consider their curious life cycle:
After burrowing from their underground locales — the path, by the way, could leave a number of small holes in your yard — the insects begin their short above-ground lives. They shed an outer layer, learn to fly and then make their way up to the treetops, where the males form a little a cappella group of sorts, singing on and on in an attempt to attract females (the sound comes from two drum-like membranes on the insect’s abdomen).
When their mating is complete, the females use what is called an “ovipositor” — a tiny saw-like structure on their bodies — to cut a small hole in tree branches and twigs and lay as many as 600 eggs inside.
When the eggs hatch, the larvae fall to the ground and burrow into the soil, finding a nice root to connect to as a source of nutrients.
And there they remain until, 17 years later, they get that old familiar feeling and re-emerge to begin the process anew.
“You’re talking about a bug that has a face that looks like a Darth Vader mask, with these really amazing-looking cellophane wings, makes this cool sound and sings sort of symphony-like, rising and falling in sound,” says Bill Graham, a spokesman with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
“Pretty amazing little critters, really.”
The incessant buzzing, meanwhile, isn’t the only thing they bring to the area.
Cicadas can typically serve as an adequate snack for various wildlife, including wild turkeys and large birds, and when they fall from trees over water, can double as fish food, too. Even humans have attempted to get in on the cicada action; before health officials put the kibosh on it back in 2011, an ice cream parlor in Columbia had created its own batch of cicada ice cream — dipping the dead bugs in chocolate and brown sugar.
Though not exactly cuddly-looking, the insects pose no threat to humans. And while their egg-laying can result in some minor damage to the twigs and small branches of trees, particularly smaller ones, the primary downside to the insects’ arrival will be the noise.
The good news is that the winged visitors aren’t expected to stay more than a few weeks. When the mating is complete, and the adults’ lives come to an end, their new offspring will return to the soil, hunkering down until, in 2032, they’re ready to make their return.
“A lot of people wonder why nature has such an insect,” Patton says. “No one really knows. It’s just kind of one of those marvels of nature, and you just kind of roll with the punches.
“Luckily,” he adds, “it only happens about once every 17 years.”
To reach Dugan Arnett, call 816-234-4039 or send email to email@example.com.