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Bugging Out: Brood X Cicadas Make a 17-Year Run for the Surface

The Brood X cicada emerges once every 17 years in Ohio and other Appalachian and Great Lakes states.
Ohio Department of Agriculture
The Brood X cicada emerges once every 17 years in Ohio and other Appalachian and Great Lakes states.

An insect that hasn't seen the surface since George W. Bush's first term as president is starting to reemerge, and Ohioans are more likely to hear them than to spot them in the wild.

The Brood X cicada, last seen in the U.S. in 2004, is making its once-every-17-year appearance. And while they don't do much physical damage, they're hard to miss.

"They're not a financial nuisance, unless you get tired of them for the four weeks that they're here and you want to move away," says Ryan Larrick, a survey technician who studies insect damage for the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

The Brood X cicada is a fascinating creature for several reasons, chief among them the way it's able to make so much noise.

The bugs possess a thin membrane drum in their abdomen that resembles a ribbed straw. When they move the ribbed structure it makes a sound about a hundred times per second, and an air cavity amplifies the sound.

Larrick says several male cicadas "singing" together can form a chorus that can reach 100 decibels, or about the same volume as a running lawnmower.

As to why they emerge in the oddly-specific cycle of once every 17 years, Larrick says it's to avoid predators.

"Because with predators they could actually learn the patterns of the cicada's emergence if they were every year. With it being every 17 years, predators really don't realize when they're emerging," Larrick says.

In their short time above ground, many female cicadas will lay their eggs near the top of trees to avoid predators. When the eggs hatch, larva will fall to the ground, find holes in the earth to get back underground, and feed on sap from tree roots for the next 17 years until they make their end-of-life appearance in 2038.

Copyright 2021 WOSU 89.7 NPR News

Updated: April 21, 2021 at 6:02 PM EDT
This story has been updated to correct a typo.
Steve Brown grew up in nearby Richwood, Ohio and now lives there with his wife and son. He started his journalism career as a weekend board operator at WOSU while majoring in journalism at Ohio State, where he also wrote for student newspaper The Lantern and co-founded the organization Students for Public Broadcasting.