These Cicadas Have Been Waiting 17 Years to Have Sex

April 20, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Cicada on a leaf
Photo credit: alo_pangue/flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Very loud sex.

Next month, cicadas will emerge from the ground in parts of the northeastern United States. Their mating calls will fill the air, and our ears. Try as we may, it is truly difficult to avoid eavesdropping on this erotic month-long orgy of sex and death.

Some cicadas appear each summer, and then there are the ‘periodical cicadas’ — so called because they emerge on a regular schedule every 13 or 17 years, depending on the species.

Most people are familiar with cicadas by their hypnotic buzzing sound, which is a song used by males to attract females for mating. But who are these mysterious creatures?

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The 17-year cicadas begin life above ground as nymphs when they hatch out of eggs that have been deposited on tree branches. On hatching, the rice-grain sized nymphs immediately fall to the ground, where they burrow their way into what will be their home for the foreseeable future.

The years that follow are spent feeding on the juices of plant roots and slowly maturing in preparation for the upcoming emergence. When the big year comes around, cicadas wait until the soil is sufficiently warm. By mid-May conditions are usually right — it is time to rise.

Billions of cicadas burst through the earth and climb up into trees where they shed their juvenile skin to reveal their adult form — a striking black body, wings striped with orange veins, and red eyes.

And then they are ready to mate.

With only a few weeks left to live, these cicadas have a single goal — reproduction. Singing males aggregate to produce deafening choruses, which females find incredibly sexy. Between singing bouts, males make short trips from tree to tree in search of receptive females.

Once mated, a male moves on to seek out additional partners. At this point the mated female is ready to lay in excess of 600 eggs, which she deposits in tiny slits that she cuts into the bark of young twigs. A short six to eight weeks later, newborn nymphs will hatch from their eggs and drop to the ground, beginning the life cycle all over again.

The long-awaited cicada orgy is fast approaching. Next month will likely be a noisy one for residents of West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Long Island in New York. But it will also be a rare opportunity to witness this extraordinary event — they won’t appear again until 2033!

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