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Cicadas are harmless but kick up quite a racket: Males’ noise measured at 94 decibels.

Last updated: May 06. 2013 11:56PM - 910 Views

Gary Hevel, a research collaborator with the Department of Entomology at the National Museum of Natural History, holds up a preserved cicada, a brood of which is expected to emerge this spring in the Washington, D.C., area.
Gary Hevel, a research collaborator with the Department of Entomology at the National Museum of Natural History, holds up a preserved cicada, a brood of which is expected to emerge this spring in the Washington, D.C., area.
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WASHINGTON — Any day now, billions of cicadas with bulging red eyes will crawl out of the earth after 17 years underground and overrun the East Coast. The insects will arrive in such numbers that people from North Carolina to Connecticut will be outnumbered roughly 600 to 1. Maybe more.


Scientists even have a horror-movie name for the infestation: Brood II. But as ominous as that sounds, the insects are harmless. They won’t hurt you or other animals. At worst, they might damage a few saplings or young shrubs. Mostly they will blanket certain pockets of the region, though lots of people won’t ever see them.


“It’s not like these hordes of cicadas suck blood or zombify people,” says May Berenbaum, a University of Illinois entomologist.


They’re looking for just one thing: sex. And they’ve been waiting quite a long time.


Since 1996, this group of 1-inch bugs, in wingless nymph form, has been a few feet underground, sucking on tree roots and biding their time. They will emerge only when the ground temperature reaches precisely 64 degrees. After a few weeks up in the trees, they will die and their offspring will go underground, not to return until 2030.


“It’s just an amazing accomplishment,” Berenbaum says. “How can anyone not be impressed?”


And they will make a big racket, too. The noise all the male cicadas make when they sing for sex can drown out your own thoughts, and maybe even rival a rock concert. In 2004, Gene Kritsky, an entomologist at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, measured cicadas at 94 decibels, saying it was so loud “you don’t hear planes flying overhead.”


There are ordinary cicadas that come out every year around the world, but these are different. They’re called magicicadas — as in magic — and are red-eyed. And these magicicadas are seen only in the eastern half of the United States, nowhere else in the world.


Several experts say that they really don’t have a handle on how many cicadas are lurking underground but that 30 billion seems like a good estimate. At the Smithsonian Institution, researcher Gary Hevel thinks it may be more like 1 trillion.


Even if it’s merely 30 billion, if they were lined up head to tail, they’d reach the moon and back.


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