Every 17 years at Heiser Hollow, thousands of insect nymphs emerge from the ground and metamorphose into adult cicada. Perhaps after spending almost 2 decades underground, its unsurprising that their journey into their final stage of life is a nocturnal one.
Starting slowly about a week ago, by last night, it sounded like a gentle rain was falling in the woods, as countless cicada nymphs poked their dusty bodies out of pencil-sized holes in the ground, and began a slow and steady crawl to a higher perch.
A 40 year old red oak, old enough to have attracted female cicada in 1999, surrounded by mowed ground that catches direct sun for much of the day, has been ground zero for the periodical cicada emergence. Starting at dusk every evening this week, I’ve found dozens of teenage cicadas, confidently crawling up the bark, seeking a convenient branch for their metamorphosis. Regular plopping sounds are evidence that some of them clumsily fall off their perch, but they undoubtedly just patiently start back up the tree trunk.
Once they’ve found a suitable spot, some 15 feet in the air on branches, some on nearby bushes, flowers, and ferns, some on short blades of grass, they dig their 6 spiked heels into the surface, and appear to pause for a brief moment, before splitting their skin.
Like showgirls at work, dozens, if not hundreds of adjacent cicada nymphs simultaneously, methodically and unselfconsciously strip off their dirty old cloths.
It must take huge energy and initiative to pull so many complex components: a half-dozen legs, antenna, mouth parts, wing stubs, and various other unrecognizable bits, out of a stiff and unyielding exoskeleton. Not all of them make it, and popular cicada emergence points are punctuated by the dead and dying that failed to fully escape from their former selves.
With their comical Fu Manchu moustaches and uninflated wings that resemble some sort of hat, they are temporarily at their least attractive, and at their most vulnerable.
Graceful is never a adjective that fully applies to cicada, periodical or annual, but at this short but significant period of transition, they seem particularly awkward. Only their scarlet eyes provide some visual continuity with their adult form.
Once a cicada has fully extricated itself, it uses its front 4 legs to hang from its old exoskeleton, back legs comically dangling, while it begins to inflate its wings.
If you sit carefully and watch, you can see the wings expanding before your eyes, as it begins to look more and more like an adult cicada. Although they are trapped by their task, the cicada somehow seem to know that they are being watched, with their nervous red compound eyes exhibiting black spots that look like pupils, always pointing towards the camera. Their wings unfurl from the top down to the bottom, looking more like mature flight surfaces as hidden organs pump them full of fluid. Not everyone makes it. The cicada above managed to expand its left wing, but the right one remained malformed at the base, preventing the possibility of flight, and providing a snack to one of tomorrow’s birds.
Most of the cicada do manage to complete the process. The cover girl from the top of this blog post, shown in reverse immediately above (note the oviposter at the base of the abdomen) risked some of the later birds with an early dusk start to her metamorphosis, and was substantially complete when this photo was taken at 1130pm last Friday night.
Although a few stragglers may still appear ghostly white, by morning, almost all of the newly emerged cicada have fully expanded their wings, and hardened up what becomes their final exoskeleton, which turns deep black in the process. Although they may be able to fly short distances, most of the previous night’s emerged cicada remain silently, albeit warily, in place the next morning, hardening their skin and their resolve, while waiting for the warmth of the sun. By the early afternoon, most of the newly emerged insects have either been eaten or have flown up into the protection of the tree canopy, leaving behind their nymphal husks, and the unfortunate remains of their brothers and sisters who could not fully emerge or form their wings.
The cicada apparently wait about 4-5 days before they are ready to take on the full responsibilities of their short adult life. They didn’t begin singing audibly until a few days ago, and as the visual signs of emergence are ramping up in a greater number of places, the song volume, and number of cicada in flight has increased. I know not everybody is entirely enthusiastic about the prospect of being surrounded by millions of screaming insects, but for me, its one of nature’s most special times.