A 17-year periodical cicada. Credit: Jon Yuschock, Bugwood.org

As a kid, I never could sleep well on Christmas Eve. The anticipation of Santa’s visit  (and the pile of wrapped presents he would leave behind) always had me so giddy that I could only doze off for a few minutes (or maybe an hour or so) at a time. I’d awake heart racing, eyes popped open wide, and check the clock. 2:23am. 3:42am. 4:15am. 5:08am. The hands of time seemed to click forward so slowly. FINALLY. 6:30a. I roused my siblings and bounded down the steps to behold the glory under the Christmas tree.

It’s with this same child-like anticipation and excitement that I keep refreshing reports on Cicada-Tracker. You see, the mass emergence of the 17-year periodical cicadas is nearly upon us. And for bug geeks like me, it’s the entomological equivalent of Christmas!

I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and vividly remember the emergence of the Brood X periodical cicadas when I was a third-grader. I can only surmise that even back then I was a bug geek in the making; rather than shriek and hide as so many of my classmates did on the playground, I was fascinated by the red-eyed, orange-veined beauties. I spent my recess time on the playground collecting the exoskeletons shed by the emerging cicadas and marveling at the noise they created in the treetops.

When Brood X reappeared 17 years later, I was poised to marvel, appreciate, and study these little wonders. I had the great fortune of being in graduate school at the right time in the right place. I rallied my lab mates at the University of Maryland to shed their waders – we studied the ecology of streams – and move into the forest understory. Over the course of two glorious months in 2004, we tracked the emergence of the periodical cicadas and the subsequent impact they had on stream ecosystems.

We counted thousands of emergence holes on the forest floor. We collected hundreds of cicadas for experiments. We measured how many dead cicadas fell from the treetops into the adjacent streams and what consequences those little buggy packets of nutrients had on the aquatic organisms living there.

Our cicada research in action. Clockwise from top left: Counting emergence holes; Measuring the input of dead cicadas to the stream; Dead cicadas piling up at the edge of a stream; A cicada experiment in action in a Maryland stream (Credit: Holly Menninger)

There’s something utterly sublime about heading out into the forest to do science and finding yourself surrounded by a wall of sound. Our team had to be good at hand signals because there were days when the roar of the cicada love song was too loud to hear each other speak. Believe me when I tell you that online audio clips of the familiar “Whee-o, whee-o” do not do the real life cicada surround-sound experience much justice.

And now we are on the cusp of another great emergence; the nymphs of the East Coast Brood (known as Brood II) have started to poke their heads out from their tunnels and turrets in forests and backyards from North Carolina to Connecticut. There have been a few early reports of adults emerging near Greensboro, NC, and in New Jersey. We anticipate the full-on #Swarmageddon to start any day now, as the soil temperatures reach a consistent temperature of 64 degrees Fahrenheit.  (Note: I use this hashtag with the greatest affection and amusement, not intending to connote panic or the end of the world. You might also want to follow #BroodII).

I told you I was EXCITED about periodical cicadas!

Over the course of these next few weeks, millions, nay BILLIONS, of periodical nymphs will crawl out of the ground, find the nearest tree or vertical surface, and emerge triumphantly from their exoskeletons. Shortly thereafter, male cicadas will sing boisterously from the treetops to attract females.  We’ll get to revel in their deafening, yet delightful choruses for several weeks. Meanwhile, the female cicadas, once mated, will lay eggs in small twigs and branches. Six to ten weeks later, tiny nymphs will emerge from the eggs, fall to the ground and dig in, finding tree roots where they’ll remain tapped in for the next 17 years.

So here’s my charge to you – Rather than shriek and recoil in fear, seize this rare opportunity to experience, enjoy, and marvel in the great wonder that is the Brood II periodical cicada emergence. Share it with your kids, friends, colleagues, neighbors and loved ones. Find a patch of woods and fill your ears with their sound (Here’s a map of previous emergence locations). Observe and report what you see – In fact, this periodical cicada season you have a great opportunity to contribute directly to cicada research. Report your observations of periodical cicadas at all stages via this nifty web-form and your data will appear on Cicada Tracker.

In short, it’s time to Carpe Cicada, my friends.