The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Brood X cicadas to emerge this spring for last gestures of beauty, reproduction and death

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This picture of a cicada, sitting on a hand, shows that its length from the head to the tips of its transparent wings, stretched back in their resting position, is about the width of two fingers
 

After 17-year wait, millions of cicadas are coming

“Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at the close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light." — Dylan Thomas

Imagine living 99.99 percent of your life underground largely unseen and then emerging above the earth for one last grand gesture of panache and reproduction and death.

This year it’s time for the 17-year cicada Brood X to pop up. The last time they appeared in Knox County was 2004. Periodical cicadas are related to the more frequently seen and heard Dog Day cicadas or harvestflies that appear every July.

Periodical cicadas remain subterranean for years. Here in the Tennessee Valley, we actually have two populations that overlap. Brood X, known as “the big brood” that will be seen and heard this summer, emerges every 17 years. Brood XIX climbs from the ground every 13 years, and is not scheduled to reappear in the valley until 2024.

Annual cicadas look like large green flies. Periodical cicadas are more colorful: bluish with red eyes and gold wings. Both groups are in the insect order Hemiptera and spend their larval stage underground tapping into tree roots for nourishment.

At this moment, this year's brood is inching its way upward. The cicadas lie in wait below the surface until the right conditions — day length and temperature — signal it’s time to move out. If you happen to be in an area where the cicadas are, you’ll see hundreds, maybe thousands, all over the place. It’s truly one of nature’s most spectacular occurrences.

They usually begin to climb from the ground at dusk in early May and quickly scurry to a nearby tall object that they climb and shed their last larval skin. After their wings dry, the new adults leave behind the husk of their former life and fly away. For the next few weeks, the males buzz to attract the females. After they mate, the females lay eggs in tender branches. All the adults die in a few weeks; when the eggs hatch the tiny larva crawl to the ground to disappear for another 17 years.

In 2004, I was writing my first book, “Natural Histories,” for the University of Tennessee Press. I was completely aware that Brood X was due to emerge, but where? Needless to say, I approached May in a heightened state of alert. As it turned out I didn’t have to wait long or go far to find the creeping horde. The first report came from a coworker at Ijams Nature Center. On May 6, Ben Nanny was moving nursery plants around on the west side of the park and discovered little tunnels and larvae under some pots. This was something I had to see for myself. I found the holes Ben described as I lifted away the same black nursery containers. Many still had the odd nymphs waiting at the top of their tunnels. As the morning sun filled the depression, the plump Hemipterans scurried back down into the darkness of their holes. Like a David Lynch movie it was unsettling, even eerie, and that was a word I’d hear often over the next three weeks.

I had recently read that some cultures eat cicadas. According to the “Eat-A-Bug Cookbook,” by David George Gordon, Native Americans dry roasted cicadas on hot rocks. If you don’t have a campfire, you can sauté them in butter, boil them like lobster, bake them on a cookie sheet (five minutes at 350 degrees) or batter them and deep fry the insects.  (If you try any of this at home, please remember to gather living cicadas and not use dead ones.)

That year we had so many in the trees around the nature center that we decided to cook and eat a few on live TV for WBIR. Peg Beute was on Ijams staff at the time, and she could cook anything. Peg gathered a bag of cicadas the day before the news spot and popped them in the freezer. The next afternoon she battered the bugs and deep-fried them. And they were good! They actually tasted as though they came from the produce aisle like fried squash or zucchini.

You might wonder how millions of these cicadas remain in sync over such a long period of time in the darkness. Fact is, they don’t. Some fall out of their natural rhythm. In late spring 2003, the late insect aficionado Rikki Hall and Hellbender Press writer, heard a few Brood Xers in the trees (one year early) and at least one lone male buzzing away in 2005 (one year late). That illustrated that this natural cycle isn’t perfectly in tune.

But May 2021 will be here soon, and we will see if the bulk of the brood is still on schedule or whether climate change or other factors has affected the timing.

(In remembrance of Rikki and Peg).

Stephen Lyn Bales is a natural historian and the author of three UT Press books:
"Natural Histories," "Ephemeral by Nature," and "Ghost Birds."
He’s also a monthly speaker (via Zoom) for the UT Arboretum Society.
He can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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