They break through the ground, like the undead emerging from graves.
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They scuttle in huge packs in the same direction, through the forest floor and up trees where they settle on the branches. There, they break out of their exoskeletons, at first sickly white and soft before they take on their red-eyed, coal-black adult form and fly off by the billions.
After 17 years as nymphs growing underground and feeding on tree roots, cicadas are back across much of the South, much to the delight of the raccoons, turtles and birds that gorge on them and the entomologists who have waited patiently for their return.
“They’re big, they’re noisy,” said Eric Day, an entomologist at Virginia Tech. “What’s not to love about them?”
Periodical cicadas’ life span is among the longest of any insect, but they spend only a sliver of their days in the sun. After growing underground for 13 to 17 years, a brood will come out in one of 15 specific regions of the United States. This year, males have already started calling out to females in southwest Virginia, West Virginia and parts of North Carolina, the mating grounds of Brood IX.
Typically around this time, Day starts getting calls for advice from nervous brides and grooms fearful that cicadas will drop in Champagne flutes or disrupt outdoor ceremonies with their loud buzzing, he said. (The sound is made only by the male, which has a membrane in its abdomen that vibrates to attract females.)
But with the coronavirus limiting gatherings, this could be a good time for Southerners to sit in their backyards and marvel at the creatures, Day said. Some may even be tempted to eat them, according to Day, who in the past has fried them up with sake and garlic.
“This is a biological phenomenon,” he said. “So we can observe them and maybe even enjoy them.”
Debbe Noonkester has no such plans. Noonkester, who owns Windy Hill Orchards in Ararat, Virginia, near the North Carolina border, said she was worried about the damage the cicadas could do to her young apple and peach trees.