Published April 28. 2013 4:00AM
In about a month, south-central Connecticut will witness the insects' mass transformation
For 17 years, this pale, dirt-dwelling hermit and thousands like it have lived quiet , obscure lives with daily routines pretty much limited to sucking on tree roots and burrowing small tunnels from their simple nests, rarely if ever interacting with each other let alone other creatures.
For this species, the teen years are the settled ones.
A kidney-bean-sized nymph, lying still in a soil-filled tray near Chris Maier's Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station lab, belied no sign of the frenzy about to come, when its kin will emerge as adult periodic cicadas of brood II, the only one found in this state.
"This is usually considered the insect with the longest life cycle," said Maier, who dug up the nymph in a forested site in North Branford last weekend. "Their long life cycle is both good and bad."
On the "bad" side, their adolescence in a confined, underground area means hundreds can be wiped out quickly by a single home construction project, Maier said. Connecticut had another brood that was wiped out in 1954, and the construction of Interstate 84 destroyed a large segment of brood II.
On the "good" side, he said, a long life ending with a "synchronous" mass emergence after 17 years allows the cicadas to trump opportunistic predators with sheer numbers. It also keeps these defenseless insects a rare delicacy rather than a staple of the diets of cats, raccoons, mice and other creatures that eat them - including humans.
"They're really quite tasty," Maier said, adding that cicadas are popular in some east Asian countries. "If you went on the Internet, you'd find quite a few recipes."
In late May or early June, when the heat of the spring sun penetrates some 10 inches into the underground nests and warms them to 64 degrees, nymphs like the one in Maier's tray will begin a radical transformation.
They will rise from noiseless, solitary grubs to emerge en masse and converge above ground, shedding their skins to become large adults with a one-track mind about what to do with rest of their life: find a mate, lay eggs and die, all in two to three weeks. For this final bacchanalian romp, the adult cicadas exchange their dull nymph features for bright red eyes and translucent wings with a florescent yellow stripe.
"For insects, they're fairly large, about 1¼ to 1½ inches," Maier said. "As soon as they emerge from the ground, they head up into the trees."
After mass singles parties with loud music in the forests of south-central Connecticut and states to the south along the East Coast, the spectacle ends as bodies of the adult cicadas cover the ground in the areas they inhabit. Eggs laid in the branches of trees will hatch in August. The nymphs then burrow back into their underground cells to bide the next 17 years. Each female lays 400 to 600 eggs, but of that, fewer than five will make it to adulthood.
"This will be my third emergence of this brood," the 63-year-old Maier said, recalling his first encounter as a young entomologist in 1979, when he was 29 years old, and his second at age 46 in 1996. "I hope I'm around to see at least one more."
This time around, Maier said, his focus will be on developing precise maps of the range of the periodic cicadas in Connecticut, which are different than their annual cicada cousins that have much different life cycles. Because of the long intervals in between, each emergence of the periodic cicadas gives entomologists the chance to employ new tools and technology not available the last time around.
This time, Maier will be using GPS devices to document where the insects are found with an accuracy never before possible. A grant from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is supporting his work.
"I'm assembling a team of volunteers to assist me, because I want to get off-road to populations on private land and water company lands, and collect specimens," he said. "There's so little time and so much ground to cover."
Brood II lives only in south-central Connecticut, near traprock and basalt ridges mainly in wooded areas. Much of its known range owned by water companies. One of the public areas where these cicadas can be found is Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden. There is also a population on the Magicicada Preserve on land owned by the South Central Connecticut Water Authority in Hamden.
Hard to ignore
John Cooley, researcher in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut, is also looking forward to the coming emergence. He's planning to spend as much time as he can comparing where he finds them this time to where they were found 17 years ago.
"Connecticut is at the extreme northern edge of their range," he said, "and there are a lot of indications that their range is contracting."
He recalled the experience of being in a forest during the last emergence, when thousands filled the trees and made their mating songs, which some say sounds like the word "pharaoh," with emphasis on the last syllable.
"In the morning, when the sun starts to heat up, there is just this hum that's not coming from any one point source," he said. "It's a sound that just kind of envelops you. If you're in one of the areas where they emerge, you won't be able to ignore the sound."
While the thought of thousands of cicadas blanketing trees and overwhelming the forest with their songs may make some squeamish, people have nothing to fear, Maier said. They don't bite humans, and most of the cicadas stay in the woods, away from developed areas. The only ones with any cause for concern are orchard and nursery owners with property in proximity to areas where cicadas emerge, because the cicadas can damage trees when they bore holes to lay their eggs.
The agricultural experiment station and the UConn Extension Service is planning to contact orchard owners in the area of the cicada range with a list of pesticides "at the low end of the toxicity scale" they can use to prevent cicada damage, Maier said.
"Some have tried putting nets around trees to protect them, but that's only been marginally effective," he said.