How to turn this rare event into a close encounter with nature

by Stephen V. Smith

(Note: This article originally appeared in the April 2024 issues of The Groundhog.)

Mark Twain was only halfway right when he purportedly said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Natural history will indeed repeat itself in late April when the 13-year periodical cicadas emerge across Alabama and several surrounding states. The resulting cacophony will be a roaring, rhyming replay of the chorus we heard in the spring of 2011.

This emergence, a marvel of nature, will fill our woods with countless winged, red-eyed creatures — as many as 1.5 million per acre on average. The singing — which is part of the male’s mating ritual — will typically begin in the late morning, building into a louder call in the heat of the afternoon. As a survival mechanism, the sound will subside as the sun goes down, decreasing the likelihood of the cicadas becoming a late-night snack for nocturnal predators.

With an average of 1.5 million cicadas per
acre, the coming emergence will provide
plenty of opportunities to see these
unique insects.

While the volume rises and falls depending on the time of day and concentration of cicadas in a given location, the sound has been measured as high as 96dB — loud enough to drown out the sound of a nearby lawn mower, or that of a plane coming in for a landing at an airport.

But cicadas are about much more than sound. The upcoming emergence of what is classified as Brood XIX is a natural wonder that gives us an opportunity to observe up close a spectacle first documented on this continent by early European settlers (Governor William Bradford noted their appearance in 1634, just 12 years after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth).

What to Expect

In late April, cicada nymphs that have been underground for 13 years will begin emerging around the base of trees. “They come out of holes in the ground about the size of your pinky finger,” explains Dr. Gene Kritsky, Professor Emeritus of Biology at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, Ohio, and an expert on cicadas.

The nymphs will immediately find something to climb, from trees to brick walls. “I’ve seen them on tombstones, on tires,” says Kritsky. “They just need to find a nice vertical surface.”

What happens next is straight out of a David Attenborough documentary. The cicada splits open across its back, exposing its milky white adult body. Kritsky explains what follows:

“The adult cicada’s tendrils start pulling it out of the shell. Eventually it’s almost hanging, almost upside down, being held in place just by the tension of that small opening in the nymphal shell. Then it does a sit-up, grabs hold of the shell, and wiggles its abdomen free. Now its wings are all shriveled up. It’s all white with blood-red eyes, with two black patches behind the head. It pumps fluid through the wings to expand them to be that tent-like shape that you see with cicadas. Once the wings are totally expanded, it will continue to darken as it hardens its exoskeleton.

After it’s completely dark, it crawls up to the top of the trees where it sits for usually four or five days.” After those four or five days, the flying and singing start. The males gather in trees known as chorusing centers that attract the females. Once the mating process is complete, females look for suitable branches to deposit some 500 eggs. They land on terminal twigs of branches, where new leaves are growing. “She has an ovipositor, an egg-laying structure, which she uses to literally saw in just below the bark and deposit pairs of eggs — anywhere between 20 to 40 eggs per cut,” says Kritsky.

A cicada frees itself, leaving
behind its shell on the tree.

After depositing eggs in a half-inch cut, the female will move another half of an inch down the branch and make another cut to deposit more eggs. “She keeps doing that,” says Kritsky, “until she runs out of twig, in which case she flies to another branch, or she runs out of eggs. When she’s out of eggs, she’ll die in the next few days.”

These eggs will hatch in six to 10 weeks, at which point the nymphs will propel themselves into the air and drop to the ground. “That’s critically important because they are extremely vulnerable to ants, spiders, and beetles,” says Kritsky.

Once they hit the ground, the tiny nymphs find openings, such as holes around blades of grass, and quickly burrow their way underground and get to work. “They’re not sleeping. They’re not hibernating,” says Kritsky. Rather, the young cicadas are feeding on tree roots. They also tunnel around, but never move much more than a yard from where they dropped to avoid losing their food source.

“If they go the wrong direction and don’t find a root, they’re dead,” Kritsky says.

This is the life of the periodical cicada for the next 13 years. The nymphs that hatch and fall this spring will busy themselves eating and tunneling until their time comes to emerge from the ground and begin the cycle all over again — in the year 2037. For perspective, that is more than three presidential election cycles from now. Put another way, children starting kindergarten this year will be high school seniors when Brood XIX emerges again.

Engage With the Emergence

Kritsky encourages people to create memories and build stories around this emergence, instead of sitting inside and letting it pass them by. “It would be great if people would enjoy this,’’ he says. “It’s a real gateway to get kids into science and nature.”

In fact, grandparents have told Kritsky that the cicada emergence got their kids interested in natural history and science, “and now they have a medical doctor in the family.”

Following are some tips for engaging with the cicada emergence:

  1. Begin observing trees and other vertical surfaces in late April, looking for the first cicadas to emerge.
  2. Once spotted, go outside after dark with a flashlight and look for cicadas as they emerge from the ground and climb trees.
  3. Spend time observing the approximately 90-minute process of the nymph splitting open and freeing itself from its shell.
  4. Make notes of what days you observe the cicadas and on which sides of trees you discover them. The full emergence of the brood can take up to two weeks.
  5. Don’t limit yourself to your own backyard or neighborhood. Visit friends and neighbors, or public lands such as state parks and Little River Canyon National Preserve.
  6. Involve your friends in fun ways. Host cicada watch parties and expeditions.
  7. Take photos and videos to document the emergence.
  8. Most of all, involve young kids in these activities when possible and explain to them the full life cycle of the cicada.

“It’s a really wonderful and memorable experience,” says Kritsky. “It’s making memories with the kids because they’re outside. It’s night. It’s dark. You have flashlights, and these bugs are all over the place. Just enjoy this.”

Be Part of the Research

Download the free app Cicada Safari.

Not only can you engage with the cicada emergence as suggested above, but you can also participate in its scientific documentation.

Begin by downloading the free app Cicada Safari, available for iPhone and Android phones. Check your phone’s settings to ensure location services are enabled for the camera. This adds important metadata to your photos that will help researchers map where submitted cicada photos were taken.

Before the emergence, familiarize yourself with the app. Read the helpful resources, especially the article about taking good photographs for Cicada Safari.

When the emergence begins, take photos of the various stages. Submit them with the app, either from within the app itself or by uploading images captured previously outside of the app.

“The photograph is sent to us and examined,” says Kritskey. “If it’s verified and approved, it goes on a live map.” As reports come in, the map comes alive with cicada data.

When Brood X emerged in 2021, the Cicada Safari app was downloaded more than 200,000 times. Kritsky and his team received 561,000 photographs from users.

Activity could be even greater this year, as interest in cicadas is running high due to the emergence of two broods.

A Rare Double Emergence

As Alabama and several surrounding states observe the emergence of Brood XIX, residents in portions of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan will see the emergence of Brood XIII — cicadas that operate on a 17-year cycle. It has been 221 years since these two broods last emerged in the same year. It was 1803, and Thomas Jefferson was president. The year’s biggest news was the significant increase in the U.S. land mass through the Louisiana Purchase.

This alignment will not happen again until the year 2245.

While this is creating heightened interest in cicadas this year, Kritsky says there will be very little overlap of the two broods. In fact, the areas where overlap does occur will be on the edges of the emergence regions where cicada populations are lower.

“What is really exciting, though, for those of us who study cicadas, is that you will, for the first time in many, many years, be able to be in a 13-year cicada brood and drive about an hour and a half and you’ll be in a 17-year cicada brood,” says Krisky.

To learn more about the coming cicada emergence, the broods involved, and historical observations about cicadas, read Kritsky’s book “A Tale of Two Broods: The 2024 Emergence of Periodical Cicada Broods XIII and XIX.”