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Have You Heard the Buzz?

After 17 long years, billions of cicadas are ready to emerge from the ground, and we’re going to hear about it! Cicadas are harmless insects with big, bulging eyes and see-through wings held like a roof over their large bodies. Some cicadas appear every year, some every few years, and some, like the “Brood X” cicadas, are about to emerge throughout the mid-Atlantic, appear periodically every 17 years.

Adult periodical cicada. Dr. Gerry Carner, ©2021, Clemson University

Adult periodical cicada.
Dr. Gerry Carner, ©2021, Clemson University

Brood X cicada nymphs spend nearly all their lives underground feeding on tree roots. When mature, and when the soil temperature is just right (typically around 64F), these nymphs come out of the ground, climb up a tree trunk, and transform into adults with wings. When this happens, you’ll see empty exoskeletons (or shells) the cicada nymphs leave behind on tree trunks and branches.

Molted exoskeletons of periodical cicada (Magicicada septendecim). Photograph by Jim Occi, BugPics, Bugwood.org

Molted exoskeletons of periodical cicada (Magicicada septendecim).
Photograph by Jim Occi, BugPics, Bugwood.org

Adult cicadas are alive for 4-6 weeks, and their only job is to mate. Male cicadas attract females with their loud signature “song”. This buzzing call can reach 90 decibels, as loud as a lawnmower or motorcycle! Even though we likely won’t hear these noisy insects in South Carolina, it may be worth a trip to neighboring counties in North Carolina or Georgia to witness this spectacular display.

Periodical cicada broods. Image by A. M. Liebhold, M. J. Bohne, and R. L. Lilja, USDA Forest Service. Public Domain

Periodical cicada broods.
Image by A. M. Liebhold, M. J. Bohne, and R. L. Lilja, USDA Forest Service. Public Domain

If you’re willing to wait a few years, South Carolina will welcome a cicada brood very similar to Brood X, called ‘The Great Southern Brood’, or Brood XIX. These are periodical cicadas that emerge every 13 years and are due to return in 2024. If you’d like to learn more, check out this awesome article about local residents who helped scientists understand more about Brood XIX emergence timing and locations. This collaboration between the public and three South Carolina state institutions (Clemson University, University of South Carolina, and the South Carolina Forestry Commission) is an excellent example of citizen science, an essential component of scientific research where the local community collects data to help professional scientists gain a more comprehensive understanding of our natural world.

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If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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