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The Great Cicada Convergence of 2024: A Buzzy Bonanza

Photo: AP

The year 2024 has been officially heralded as the ‘Year of the Cicadas’. In an extraordinary display of natural synchronicity, two distinct broods of periodical cicadas — one on a 13-year cycle and the other on a 17-year cycle — are set to emerge simultaneously for the first time in over two centuries. This rare phenomenon last seen in 1803, promises to bring billions of these buzzing creatures to the Midwest and Southeast regions of the United States. As the days grow longer and the soil begins to warm, anticipation mounts for what is expected to be an unforgettable natural spectacle. Cicadas are fascinating insects known for their distinctive life cycles. Most species are annual, but periodical cicadas, specifically the Magicicada genus, spend the majority of their lives in a nymph state underground, only to emerge en masse as adults. The 13- and 17-year broods are the most famous, each living in synchrony and spending a prime number of years developing beneath the soil. This prime number strategy is thought to be an evolutionary tactic to avoid syncing with predator populations, which often have two- to five-year cycles. The periodical cicadas are grouped into broods based on the calendar year when they emerge. The 13-year cicadas are primarily found in the southern states and the Mississippi Valley, while the 17-year cicadas are mostly in the northern states. The simultaneous emergence of both broods is a rare alignment that offers a unique opportunity for scientists and enthusiasts alike to study these insects and their impact on the environment.

The Great Cicada Convergence of 2024

As spring encroaches, the stage is set for a rare natural concert. The ground’s temperature is the maestro, cueing billions of cicadas to tunnel upwards when the soil about 8 inches deep reaches a steady 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Upon emergence, the cicadas will shed their nymph exoskeletons and take to the trees. This 2024 phenomenon is not just a curiosity for entomologists but a significant event for the entire ecosystem. The cicadas will be everywhere — in forests, parks, rural farmlands, and even urban areas. Their mating calls, a cacophony of buzzing and clicking noises, can reach up to 100 decibels, akin to the sound of a lawn mower or a motorcycle passing by. This sound is the males’ serenade to attract females, a critical part of their short-lived reproductive phase. For four to six weeks, the air will be filled with the sounds of cicada courtship. After mating, the females will lay eggs in the slits they carve into the twigs of trees. Several weeks later, the eggs will hatch and the new nymphs will drop to the ground, burrowing into the soil to begin their lengthy development underground.

Impact and Significance

The emergence of cicadas in such vast numbers is more than just a noisy curiosity. It represents an essential pulse in the life of the regions they inhabit. The cicadas provide a bounty for predators, including birds, small mammals, and fish, leading to a temporary but significant shift in the local food chain. Additionally, when the adult cicadas die off, their decomposing bodies enrich the soil with nutrients, providing a boost to plant growth. The phenomenon will also have economic and societal impacts. The dense populations of cicadas can cause damage to young trees due to the females’ egg-laying process. Forestry services and individual property owners in the affected areas are advised to protect young saplings with netting or to delay planting until the following year to avoid potential damage. However, for mature trees, the cicadas generally pose no significant threat and may even provide long-term benefits through the aforementioned nutrient cycling. From a cultural perspective, the emergence of the cicadas will likely inspire community events, educational programs, and citizen science projects. These events provide an excellent opportunity for learning and engagement with the natural world, allowing people of all ages to participate in data collection and observation, contributing to scientific understanding of these unique insects and their cycles.

Challenges and Preparations

As the cicada emergence approaches, states and local governments in the expected regions are preparing to address the challenges that come with such a substantial insect influx. Waste management services are developing plans to deal with the increase in organic debris from the cicada’s life cycle. Public health officials are also educating the public about cicadas, reassuring residents that while they may be a nuisance, cicadas do not pose a threat to human health as they do not bite or carry diseases. On the agricultural front, while most crops are not at risk from cicadas, vineyards and orchards may take precautions to protect their young vines and trees. Meanwhile, scientists are preparing their research projects, looking to take full advantage of this rare event to gain insights into cicada behavior, genetics, and their role in the ecosystem. The great cicada convergence of 2024 is a reminder of the incredible intricacies of nature’s cycles. This rare event invites curiosity and provides a wealth of opportunities for education, research, and simply marveling at one of nature’s most remarkable phenomena. As billions of cicadas prepare to rise from the earth, we are offered a chance to witness a once-in-a-lifetime event that underscores the wonder and resilience of the natural world. Whether greeted with excitement or trepidation, there is no doubt that the spring of 2024 will be one for the history books, marked by the rhythmic symphony of the cicadas’ song.

By Roxana Stanica

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