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The Rip Van Winkle of Bugs to Awaken

Written by The Two River Times. Posted in Letters & Commentary

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The Rip Van Winkle of Bugs to Awaken

Published on April 26, 2013 with No Comments

By Michele S. Byers

The last time “Brood II” hatched, Bill Clinton was in the White House, Justin Bieber was in diapers and there was no Google, Facebook, Twitter or Wikileaks!

Brood II are periodical cicadas (the genus Magicicada), the Rip Van Winkle of insects, which emerge only once every 13 or 17 years. This brood has been snoozing underground since 1996!

Within weeks – maybe by the time you read this – Brood II will be buzzing about and mating in the sky, ensuring that a new generation of nature lovers in this state we’re in can experience a magnificent spectacle.

It’s easy to see why these red-eyed flying bugs are called Magicicadas. They’re weird, fascinating and magical!

About the size of a shrimp, cicadas are known for their vast numbers and the shrill chorus males use to impress the ladies. Cicadas live most of their lives underground as nymphs, surviving by sucking fluid out of tree roots. But once every 13 or 17 years, depending on the brood, they emerge. In the space of a month, they transform into adults, reproduce and die.

Once out of the ground, cicada nymphs climb the nearest trees and shed their exoskeletons. Free of their old skin, their wings inflate with fluid, their new skin hardens and they’re ready to fly. The shed exoskeletons stay behind, clinging to tree trunks – crunchy, translucent shells of their former selves.

You’ll probably hear these cousins of katydids and crickets before you see them.

Males make a rapid click-click-click sound by flexing their tymbals, drum-like organs in their abdomens. Small muscles pull the tymbals in and out of shape, like a child’s click-toy, and the sound is amplified by the insect’s mostly hollow abdomen. Female cicadas make a less distinctive sound by flicking their wings.

Scientists aren’t sure why these cicadas appear in 17- or 13-year cycles. Some researchers think the timing may be a natural defense mechanism. After all, it’s harder for predators like birds and squirrels to anticipate a food source if it appears at infrequent intervals.

Another theory is that these long, odd-numbered life cycles help cicadas avoid parasites. A cicada with a 17-year cycle and a parasite with a two-year cycle, for example, would meet only two or three times each century.

We don’t know all the secrets of these fascinating creatures, but we can enjoy them during their rare visits! They don’t bite or sting, so it’s perfectly OK to pick them up. And, believe it or not, you can eat them!

To find out more about periodical cicadas, go to the Cicada Mania website at www.cicadamania.com. It includes maps of where they’re likely to emerge, fun facts about their life cycles, recordings of their song, videos, and even cicada T-shirts and other merchandise.

If you have an adventurous palate, check out cicada recipes at www.newsdesk.umd.edu/pdf/ cicada%20recipes.PDF.

And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

 

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

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