Billions of Cicadas Will Soon Emerge on the East Coast

Billions of 17-year cicadas are set to emerge in Ohio, West Virginia and surrounding areas in May 2016. Hyungwon Kang HK / REUTERS

Billions and billions of cicadas will soon emerge in Ohio, West Virginia and other nearby states, in an event that hasn't occurred since 1999.

Beginning in May, three different species of cicadas (Magicicada septendecim, M. cassini and M. septendecula) in these areas will emerge as adults and start to look for mates, the highlight of a life cycle that lasts 17 years. These creatures were born in 1999 but spent the last 17 years as nymphs underground eating the sugary secretions of plant roots.

The cicadas will come out when the soil underneath warms sufficiently. The insect experts at expect that the cicadas will emerge in mid-May, but they may arrive sooner if the spring season turns out to be particularly balmy. They are often brought out by a warm rain.

Once the cicadas emerge out of the ground, they climb trees and begin to molt, shedding their nymphal skins and revealing their adult form, replete with wings. They use these to make breeding calls to attract mates, producing one of the loudest noises in the animal kingdom. They live only four to six weeks, during which time they mate and lay eggs. The female uses a pointy organ called an ovipositor to punch holes in the wood of trees, within which she lays eggs. These eggs hatch into nymphs, about the size of a grain of rice, which then fall to the ground and burrow in, only to come out 17 years later.

Besides West Virginia and Ohio, the insects are expected to be seen in parts of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Long Island in New York. This generation of cicadas is known as Brood V; there are distinct groups of cicadas with 17- and 13-year cycles found elsewhere in the United States that have different names.

Most 13- and 17-year cicadas have red eyes, but they can also be other colors such as whitish, gray, blue or yellow.

Scientists think cicadas evolved to come out at these intervals because it reduces the chance that they will get eaten, allowing them to outlive several predators that feed upon them. Many of the cicadas will, of course, be eaten, but they come out in such large numbers that enough of the animals mate for the species to survive.