Section: Features

Cyclical cicadas will convene at Commencement

Cyclical cicadas will convene at Commencement

Illustration by Henry Uhrik

If Nature’s Clock is Right, They’ll Arrive About the Middle of May. All Will Die by July.

This quote from the Feb. 20, 1931 edition of the Collegian is not, thankfully, about the apocalypse — it’s about cicadas.

The periodical cicada is a species group belonging to the Magicicada genus. These insects spend their first 17 years underground feeding on tree sap. They emerge after three nights of 64-degree weather, according to Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology Megan Meuti, meaning they may come just in time to make the proud parents at graduation wonder who made Moses mad.

After emerging from the soil and molting, males will start to make a distinctive buzzing sound. To attract males, females produce a low clicking sound by vibrating their wings. You can actually attract males by snapping your fingers — so if the guy you’re dating right now isn’t working out, things may be looking up. 

Once they find each other, the cicadas mate. The female then lays about 400 eggs into a v-shaped hole she makes in a branch. The cycle begins again as small nymphs hatch, fall to the ground and stay there feeding on sap for another 17 years.

Cicadas can mate more than once, but because their lifespan is so short (only two to four weeks) and pretty much every animal eats them, it’s not likely. They are virtually guaranteed to go out with a bang.

Cicadas are organized into about a dozen different broods that each differ based on emergence time, species composition and specific region in the eastern United States. You can attribute the sleepless nights you have ahead of you to our good friends of Brood V.

As much as we all may hate cicadas, the thought of being able to witness the emergence is an exciting one.

There’s just one problem — our brood is dying.

In 1914, an unidentified Collegian reporter described Gambier’s cicadas as “a vigorous brood, undoubtedly the champions of Ohio both in numbers and in badness.”

Seventeen years later, anticipation was just as high — so much so that a writer for the Mount Vernon News gravely warned: “Ladies planning to attend the commencement exercises are advised to bring plenty of handkerchiefs and strong perfume to combat the odor of the locusts.”

Two months later, the headlines were singing a different tune: “Cicada Septendecim Disapoints Kenyon.”

Even then, people were noticing the decline in brood size since the cicadas’ last emergence. In the 1914 Collegian article, Kenyon biology professors at the time blamed two factors: the extreme dryness of the winter and summer and the efforts Kenyon groundskeepers to seek out and destroy eggs on tree branches before they had a chance to hatch.

Professor Emerita of English Judy Smith noticed a similar decrease in cicada activity during her time at Kenyon.

“The 1982 emergence was epic! You literally could not walk anywhere without stepping on and hearing them crunch under your shoes — probably an inch thick with them,” Smith wrote in email to the Collegian. “1999 was nothing at all like it. It was tame.” 

These testimonies aren’t entirely anecdotal, either. The population of Brood V has been declining for years, according to a biological survey (Kritsky et al. 1999) conducted by the College of Mount Saint Joseph in Cincinnati’s biology department.

Previous studies noted the western borders of Brood V’s territory had been shrinking. Scientists in that survey confirmed this in 1999, reporting that the periodical cicada had disappeared from western Licking and Knox counties.

This loss of territory amounted to a net 10-mile loss from 1914 to 1999. Researchers suspect this was due to deforestation as well as other active efforts to stem the tide of the incoming cicadas.

Whether this trend will continue remains to be seen, but researchers think a further decline of the cicada population is inevitable. 

To be sure, though, there certainly won’t be any lack of cicadas this year. So make sure not to step on any and remember: Always check your beverages, because you might just find some extra protein in them.


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