Afraid of Cicadas? This Entomologist Wants to Change That.

Spring has sprung, and coming with it is a mass emergence of two broods of cicadas. After more than a decade underground, they will tunnel through the soil and up to the treetops to spend the remainder of their lives loudly buzzing for a mate.

In some places, people have already spotted the insects — or, at least, heard their call.

Sammy Ramsey, an entomologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, says he feels like these bugs get a bad rap. To combat that, he uploaded a silly, but surprisingly smooth, music video to YouTube during the emergence of an earlier cicada brood in 2021. He hoped that the song, called “Big Red Eyes,” would help people empathize with the isolation cicadas endure for most of their lives, especially given our seclusion during the early phases of the pandemic.

Since then, Dr. Ramsey has been on a mission to change people’s perception of cicadas. He’s traveling to Illinois — the one place where some of the two emerging broods are expected to overlap — to film the insects emerging from the soil. Dr. Ramsey recently spoke with The New York Times about the behavior of these creatures, and why we should revere rather than fear them.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

I hear cicadas every summer. Why the sudden craze?

That’s the annual, or dog-day, cicada, which typically have green wings. Annual cicadas do not have the periodicity of the magicicada that are emerging soon.

There’s a reason the seven species of periodical cicadas are called magicicada. There’s no other thing like this in the world. You can only experience this crazy, mass emergence of periodical cicadas in North America. So they earned a reputation for being magical.

We have a rather unusual occurrence: Two different broods of periodical cicadas are going to emerge at the same time. Brood XIX emerges every 13 years and Brood XIII emerges every 17 years. They only sync up every 221 years.

Do cicadas deserve a better reputation?

When talking about the emergence, people typically use language related to it being a terrible experience, as if it’s an apocalyptic event or an insect invasion. But for so many reasons, it’s a beautiful, incredible experience.

Think about the fact that cicadas have been underground for 13 or 17 years. That they can coordinate this mass emergence is a feat by itself.

Male cicadas will coordinate their mating calls with each other. They all fly to the same tree and coordinate this whirring sound. That sound isn’t ever a single cicada, nor an uncoordinated patch of cicadas. That’s them all linking together and producing this amplified sound to sing to as many females as possible.

So how might we warm up to them?

Exposure therapy is a great way to go, but I know that doesn’t work for everybody. A good way to get started is to read about cicadas online — not the scary stuff about invasions, but content from scientists who are enthused about this occurrence. It helps to get an understanding of what other people see.

Cicadas are in isolation for years, so being able to interact with others finally and find a mate is going to be an incredible experience for them. The song that cicadas sing is one of pure romance. Thinking about it like a romantic symphony might help change the way people feel .

After learning about them, then you can move toward exposure. Go find one, maybe even touch one.

Where should we look to see the cicadas?

Cicadas wait until the evening to emerge from the ground. This is the most vulnerable stage of their entire life cycle, so they wait for dusk because squirrels and birds are less inclined to come after them.

Look for cicadas burrowing out of turrets in the ground. They’ll climb up the nearest vertical surface — the side of a house, trees, vehicle tires or anything else they can find. The backs of their exoskeletons will split open and out will crawl a squishy, white organism. It takes time for cicadas to harden, so they’ll just have to sit there for a while, barely able to move.

Eventually, they will gain the capacity to fly, and the males will sing. Their song will grow in intensity over about a week and a half as more cicadas come out of the ground, until it is just this constant sound during the day. Look into the trees during this time and you might see cicadas darting back and forth. Those are the males, looking for a female who has snapped her wings to signal interest in mating.

A little over a month after they show up, it’ll be over. By mid-July there’s usually not a periodical cicada to be found.

Is there anything we should be wary of?

Cicadas have no capacity to cause physical damage. These big, beautiful organisms are just about love.

There is, however, always this booming population of oak leaf itch mites shortly after the cicadas die. These mites are barely visible to the naked eye — only millimeters in length — and under normal circumstances, you’d hardly notice them. But the mites feed on cicada eggs. So during a brood emergence, their population grows ridiculously large. If you happen to be standing under a tree, or if it’s a breezy day, a mite could land on you. Their saliva contains a neurotoxin that can make people itchy if bitten.

Most of the time, these mites aren’t dangerous. But if you are sensitive to other bug bites, you might have a similar response to these mites as well.

How do cicadas affect our environment?

When they emerge, they feed entire forest ecosystems. Animals will have larger offspring as a result of the additional energy. And when the cicadas die, they contribute nutrients back to the ground, feeding soil micro-organisms and the trees and plants around them.

These creatures are also remarkable ecological indicators. There are whole broods of cicadas lost because of human expansion, as we pave over surfaces without thinking about what lies underneath. It is a reminder that our actions have consequences for the environment.

On the other hand, these emergences tell us that we still have the capacity to turn things around. Even though we have changed the world dramatically, cicadas keep showing up.

That helps me feel more optimistic about the state of the world, the gloom of climate change. Cicadas remind me that we have not lost yet. That we need to keep fighting.

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