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caption: Cicadas from Brood X in 2004 in Winchester, VA.
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Cicadas from Brood X in 2004 in Winchester, VA.
Credit: Steve Loya »

Billions of bugs: life of a cicada underground

The shrill calls of billions of Brood X cicadas emerging from the earth have captured the nation’s ears and attention this spring. But what do these noisy insects DO for the 17 years they live underground? In this episode we dig deep into that question.

I’ve always had a thing for bugs. And these ones are extra special. Cicadas have a mystique about them. Maybe that’s because they’re kind of elemental. they’ve been around since long before the human race. We’ve evolved physically and spiritually right alongside them. In Japanese Buddhism, they’re a symbol of rebirth (perfect!). Plato wrote about them in “Phaedrus”. Bob Dylan wrote a song about them after their singing interrupted his honorary degree ceremony at Princeton.

Dr. Chris Simon from the University of Connecticut has been studying periodical cicadas for over 40 years. That’s at least two long life cycles of Broad X. She says that periodical cicadas emerge in plague proportions once every 13 and 17 years.

“When the pilgrims landed in Plymouth and established a colony there they had a really hard time for the first few years,” says Simon. “Shortly after they arrived there was a big mass emergence of periodical cicadas and they thought it was a Biblical plague of locusts.”

A common mistake. But cicadas would like you to know that they are not locusts, thank you very much. Locusts fly in swarms and destroy plants and crops. Cicadas, on the other hand, can actually help plants by fertilizing them with their dead bodies and aerating the ground with the tunnels they create. Besides, they’re only here, above ground, for a few short weeks, less than five percent of their lives. When they emerge, they have a sole mission: find a mate, make babies, and die. Their offspring burrow into the ground and wait for the next cycle to begin, 17 years later. The next emergence of Brood X will be in the year 2038.

Recommended links from Chris Morgan:

Billions of cicadas may be coming to trees near you

Cicada Mania

THE WILD is a production of KUOW in Seattle in partnership with Chris Morgan and Wildlife Media. It is produced by Matt Martin and edited by Jim Gates. It is hosted, produced and written by Chris Morgan. Fact checking by Apryle Craig. Our theme music is by Michael Parker.