What is a Magicicada?

Magicicadas are a genus of large, winged insects that appear in tremendous numbers every 13 or 17 years, depending on where you live. They are one of the world's longest-living insects and when they emerge, often disrupt many outdoor activities because of the vast numbers. They are members of the huge Cicadidae family with over 3,000 species. All cicadas have a nymph form that lives underground, however the periodical cicadas that live in the eastern half of North America (Magicicada) are the only ones that have a timed, mass emergence. There are other cicada species that live here as well, however they are solitary and only a few emerge at different times each summer. There are seven distinct species and seventeen groups, or broods of these magicicadas. They all live in different regions of eastern North America and their emergence year is easily calculated. There are many maps and graphs available on line for reference. This year, Brood IX (Brood 9) is emerging in parts of Virginia, North Carolina, and West Virginia. 2021 will be the year for the Great Eastern Brood X (Brood 10) that covers most of the east and southeast of the U.S.

The Magicicada Life Cycle

The life cycle of these insects is amazing. The eggs are laid by females in small slits in the tips of the branches of a tree. When they hatch, the nymphs fall to the ground and quickly burrow under to find the roots. They live there for 13 to 17 years sucking the sap from the tree roots and occasionally molting to a more mature form of the nymph. At the end of their incubation period, they all start moving to about eight inches below the ground and when the soil temperature there reaches a certain point, usually around 64 degrees, they all surface and climb up trees, shrubs, tall grasses and start to molt. The adult cicada emerges from the shell of the nymph and leaves the husk behind. We called them 'dry flies' as kids. It takes about six days for the body to fully expand, harden and take on the color of the adult form. The image below is of a freshly emerged magicicada. Once the hardening process is finished, they are ready to find a mate.

newly emerged magicicada

Magicicadas Aren't Harmful to Humans

These insects emerge in such numbers that often the ground, structures, surrounding plants and trees are covered with the red-eyed creatures and when the males start singing their mating call, it sounds like nothing else in this world. And it is loud. Each male cicada can emit sounds up to 108.9 decibels which is the equivalent of a power lawn mower. He creates the sound by vibrating a hollow part of his abdomen. When millions of these insects do this all at once, the sound is deafening. And over a million cicadas can emerge per acre in some of the heavier populated zones. You can hear it inside your home and even going down the highway in a car with the windows up. It is a droning, vibrating noise that I compare to the sound an alien mothership would make as it descends upon Earth. It is unsettling and unlike anything else in nature. If you get the chance to experience it, it is one of the most fascinating sounds on the planet. The insects themselves have an otherworldly alien appearance too. Their creepy red eyes and black bodies with deep gold markings make people think they are dangerous, however they aren't poisonous and have no stinger. Their proboscis that pierces the tree roots can cause a pinch if it is mishandled, however there's no peril at all.

Why Do Magicicadas Appear All At Once?

All of these insects showing up at once can cause all sorts of problems. Swimming pools have to be covered, they congregate all over porches and driveways. Dogs adore the taste and gobble them up by the dozens, and we all know what happens when Fido eats too much of something, too fast. Rodents and reptiles, fish and small mammals all love cicadas. They are even considered a delicacy for humans in some parts of the world. The vast numbers that emerge serves a couple of purposes. First, since the magicicadas only appear after many years, there is no predator that has developed an exclusive taste for them. Sure, the animals that eat them, like them, however they are only opportunists and are simply capitalizing on the bounty. There is no animal that dines on them exclusively. Second, since billions of these insects appear at once, there is no danger of the population being threatened. The predators can't possibly eat them all, ensuring the next generation. It is simple and effective.

cicadas on a leaf

Magicicadas Won't Harm Gardens

Many people wonder if cicadas can harm their vegetable garden or their ornamental plants and the answer is no. Adult cicadas do not feed, however the nymphs that live in the ground do sip sap from the roots of trees. For the most part, even this isn't considered harmful. Some people call the adults locusts and fear that they will strip their gardens of vegetation and haul out the pesticides. Don't bother. There will just be more to take their place and they only live between two and four weeks anyway, and cicadas aren't locusts. You might see tip damage (called flagging) on your trees and if you have very young trees, it might be wise to cover them with fine netting to prevent the females from laying their eggs in the branch tips, however most trees do just fine. There really isn't anything you need to do and the dead insects make an excellent addition to the compost heap. Even the crispy husks the nymphs leave behind can go in the compost pile.

cicada nymph husks

The Magicicada in Legends and Lore

Cicadas are a universal symbol of rebirth and immortality. They are also considered a protection against bad luck. The Hopi spirit Kokopelli is sometimes called The Cicada and his ever-present flute is compared to the cicada song. Some Native Americans considered the cicada sacred and ate them as a ceremonial food to symbolize resurrection. And in some parts of Asia a carving of a cicada was placed on the tongue of the deceased to ensure a path to immortality. Throughout history the cicada has been welcomed and cherished and we should take a page from the ancient's playbook and do so as well. Welcome the magicicadas whenever and wherever they emerge and consider the time they spend with us special as well.