Cicadas

Living underground: CT has 13-year and 17-year cicada populations. (Courtesy magicicada.org / April 16, 2013)

One of nature's weirdest, most mysterious bugs is living under Connecticut. Millions of them have been waiting the better part of two decades to stage a mass orgy of singing and sex, and we're now only a few short weeks away from their "emergence."

Magicicada Brood II, one of North America's "17-year cicada" populations, is about to dig its way out. And it could happen in your back yard.

Cicada scientists like the University of Connecticut's Chris Simon are eagerly looking forward to the last part of May and early June when these strange creatures will erupt in vast swarms. Simon and her colleagues are enthusiastically engaged in a major research effort to solve some of the puzzles surrounding these truly peculiar bugs.

Those of us "lucky" enough to be in their neighborhood when they emerge may feel a bit differently.

"Some people may be caught off guard," says Michael Singer, an associate professor of biology at Wesleyan University.

Say you're living in a nice house built after 1996 and still have some of the old trees left from the woodland that used to cover your lot. It's quite possible you never realized there were cicada nymphs sucking on your tree roots and digging through your soil. Then suddenly, one day in late May or early June, thousands and thousands of these cicadas appear.

It could freak you out. On the other hand, there's not much to worry about.

For one thing, they can only survive underground if there are the roots of trees or woody shrubs to suck on. If, in the years since their last emergence, all the trees have been cut down, there won't be any cicadas to come out. "Maybe it could be a fizzle," Singer says.

They also don't bite. They don't really do much damage to trees or flowers or gardens (if you're worried, just throw some garden netting over your bush or tree). Snakes and squirrels and fish and all sorts of other animals consider them a tasty bonanza whenever they do happen to finally leave their underground burrowing to take flight. And the adults die after only a couple of weeks, leaving their crunchy little bodies under the trees in piles to enrich the soil.

Some people even eat them. Missouri state officials have offered up recipes for "El Chirper" Tacos, "Cicada Pizza," and "Cicada-Portobello Quiche." The flip side of that coin comes from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which is urging pet owners to keep their dogs on leashes and their cats inside to keep them from cicada munching – not to protect the pets, but to protect the cicadas.

Cicadas do make a lot of noise. Not surprising, really, considering that there are records of as many as 1.5 million of these cicadas crowding into a single acre and a whole mess of them are males trying to attract females by singing.

When there are lots of males singing together in a tree, it's called a "chorus." Some cicada choruses have been recorded up close at the 90-plus decibel level, about as loud as a lawn mower or a motorcycle 25 feet away.

Now, these aren't katydids or grasshoppers or locusts. They're not even the more common kinds of cicadas that emerge every other year to sing briefly in the summertime.

The 17-year variety that's about to grace us with a visit is a member of one of the more complex bug families known to science.

These are "periodical cicadas." If you're curious about complex insects, these are the babies for you. (I was going to try and simplify all this to make it more understandable, but have given up.):

-There are seven species that scientists have divided into three species groups. North America is the only place in the world where they exist.

-Each species group is divided into one 13-year species and one 17-year species, except for the "Decim" group, which is divided into two 13-year species.

-Each "brood," which is a particular group that emerges on one of these cycles, has its own Roman numeral. So there are 13 broods of the 17-year variety, and three broods of the 13-year version.

-The 13-year broods are mostly in the American south, while the 17-year ones are mostly up north.

-And here's the kicker: new DNA research by Simon and her team, working with scientists from Japan's Kyoto University, indicates these different broods can switch back and forth between 17-year cycles and 13-year cycles.