Wednesday, May 1, 2013

They Are Coming: Cicadas in NJ

Star-Ledger photo
It has been 17 years. The cicadas are ready to emerge again in our area.

We all know their mating call that is a sound of summer - though their choppy chirp is not quite The Beach Boys. Only male cicadas use special muscles to vibrate two ridged, drum-like membranes called tymbals and make that sound to attract females.

They are not endangered or threatened, but they are rare because of the years that pass before we see them again. This year is expected to be one of the largest broods recorded. Entomologists are excited. You might be disgusted.

Their cycles runs13 or 17 years and the signal they are waiting for is the soil temperature 8 inches down to be a steady 64 degrees. Amazing.

After just a few hours from emerging, they go through a metamorphosis, transforming from a flightless, slow-moving nymph stage into a large, flying insect.And then they hit the sky. Perhaps in swarms this year.

Why? We're not quite sure.

Sometimes it happens in an off year. The Star-Ledger reports that in 2009, a swarm emerged in Union County four years early. But they didn't make. Predators got them before they could even be studied. They have many predators including birds, dogs, cats, snakes, squirrels, deer, raccoons, mice, ants, and wasps.

Some people eat them. It is said that they have a taste that is sort of asparagus and nutty. Supposedly best when they molt and are still soft. I have no personal experience with cicada cuisine.

Don't confuse these periodical cicadas for the annual cicadas that we hear every summer. Periodical cicadas are commonly known as "17-year locusts" or "13-year locusts", but they are not true locusts, which are a type of grasshopper. This species, Magicicada, adults have black bodies and striking red eyes and orange wing veins, with a black "W" near the tips of the forewings. The most common in New Jersey is called Macicada Septendecim, and they are the largest in size. Look for broad bands of orange on the abdomen. It is said that their mating call sounds like "pharaoh."

Most will emerge in May and June. You can report cicada spottings at and your data will help map where the cicadas emerge this year.

WNYC radio and Radiolab have created a citizen science project to track cicadas emergence in the northeast. To learn more about the project, including how you can build a device to predict in your backyard and participate, visit WNYC's Cicada Tracker homepage

According to those sites, soil temperatures are generally still in the mid-50s across NJ and Rutgers University reported that the cicadas probably won't appear until late May. The soil warms slowly, so a week of 70 and 80 degrees days doesn't have much of an impact.

The Cicadas Are Coming! from Radiolab on Vimeo.

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