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.