An electric buzz is rising in the woods and backyards of the North Carolina foothills as 17-year cicadas dig out of the ground for the first time since Bill Clinton was president.
Extension agents in Burke and Caldwell counties are getting calls from residents worried that the insects will damage plants. Experts say mature plants face little risk, and that cicadas won’t bite or sting people.
“The singing is very loud in some places,” said Amanda Taylor, a state nursery and greenhouse extension agent in Morganton. “In town you would have to listen pretty well. But you don’t have to go very far out of town, where there are more woodlands. If you stop at a stop sign, they’re loud.”
Taylor’s colleague in Lenoir, extension agent Eli Snyder, said she’s heard reports of cicadas in southwestern Caldwell County near Morganton and Collettsville.
Some folks say the high-pitched whine gets tiresome and their inch-long length is imposing. But look past the insects’ red, beady eyes into one of the most amazing life cycles in nature – one that’s slipping away.
The insects popping up in the foothills are among seven species of periodical cicadas, which emerge in eastern North America in 13- or 17-year cycles. Entomologists call this spring’s emergence Brood VI.
The show begins when soil temperatures reach 64 degrees. On cue, after years of quietly feeding on the juice of tree roots, millions of cicadas will claw their way to the ground’s surface as part of the largest synchronized insect emergence on Earth.
In their four to six weeks of life topside, the insects will shed their translucent outer husks and take to the trees.
Males will break into song, produced by vibrating membranes in their abdomens, to lure mating partners. A full chorus of thousands of cicadas can reach 100 decibels, about the volume of a lawnmower.
Females will lay eggs in tiny slits they cut into plant stems. Then the adults die.
Once the eggs hatch in six to 10 weeks, the young will fall to the ground, burrow in and get ready for their 2034 wake-up call.
The main group of Brood VI will emerge in the Carolinas and Georgia, says the website Cicada Mania, with smaller groups in Ohio and Wisconsin. In North Carolina, they’re most likely to appear in Buncombe, Burke, Caldwell, Henderson, McDowell, Polk and Wilkes counties.
Another website, magiccicada.org, posts daily maps of crowd-sourced cicada reports.
While the insect horde is unlikely to hurt mature trees, experts say young plants can be wrapped in cheesecloth or horticultural row covers, secured at the trunk, to thwart the egg-laying females.
Turtles, birds, squirrels and other wildlife will gorge on the massed insects. But, as with many wildlife species, trouble is brewing in the cicada world.
The age-old cycle is broken when trees are cut down or woods splintered into patches by development, said entomologist Bill Reynolds, head of the Arthropod Zoo at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Climate change may also be altering cicadas’ natural pattern – broods on the southern and northern extremes of their North American range are already extinct.
With each emergence, Reynolds said, cicada numbers fall.
“I equate the loss of species to opening the hood of your car every so often and pulling out a part. At some point it’s not going to start,” he said. “That’s kind of what were doing to nature.”
And Reynolds offers some perspective to complainers: “This is something that will happen only so many times in your life. You should be happy to experience it.”