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‘Night of the Living Dead’: 1.5 million cicadas per square acre emerge from the dirt

Scientists are looking to citizens to help them track cicadas. (Gene Kritsky)
Scientists are looking to citizens to help them track cicadas. (Gene Kritsky)

For the first time since Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, two broods of cicadas are emerging from the ground at the same time in the Midwest and Southeast.

The cicadas are part of Brood 17 and Brood 19. Some entomologists predict a trillion of the noisy insects could crawl up out of the dirt. 

“It’s going to be a double whammy, if you will, across the eastern United States,” says Gene Kritsky, professor emeritus of biology at Mount St. Joseph University.

Some places have already seen the insects start to surface. Cicadas began emerging on April 14 in Augusta, Georgia. They’ve also been spotted in Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina. 

“Those are all Brood 19, 13-year cicadas. We’re about 40 miles away from the southern limit of the 17-year cicada brood,” Kritsky says. “So we’re holding our breath to watch and see if this actually takes place.”

When cicadas first emerge, Kritsky says the insects will be ghostly white and start to spread their wings.

“The first night when they come out, it’s like the night of the living dead,” Kritsky says. “You’ll see all these things crawling out of the ground and up tree trunks.”

Five days after they emerge, the cicadas start to sing. The drone will grow louder as more insects emerge, but quiet down after a few weeks as they die off. 

“They sing, mate, lay eggs and die,” Kritsky says.

To track where cicadas are emerging, scientists are looking to the public for help. An app called Cicada Safari allows users to snap photos of cicadas in the wild and upload them to be verified.

Using geographical information, scientists can then build a map showing the distribution of cicadas across the country. But with deforestation happening nationwide, these insects might be waking up to patchier areas than when their lives began underground.

Cicadas do a lot of good for the Eastern Deciduous Forest, which covers about a third of North America. They aerate the soil when they first come up and when they start to fly, they become food for predators of all kinds. Even at the end of their life, they still provide ecological benefits. 

“After they’re done singing and mating and laying eggs, they die and their carcasses collect around the trees where they’ve been doing their activities and they start to stink. They really do,” Kritsky says. “As they decay, their nutrients go into the soil and create a nutrient cache around the tree.

Gabrielle Healy produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Grace Griffin adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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