CHICAGO — The gazillions of red-eyed, winged creatures expected to crawl out of Illinois topsoil in the next few days won’t just be ugly. They’ll also be a little early.
By MIKE RAMSEY
GATEHOUSE NEWS SERVICE
CHICAGO — The gazillions of red-eyed, winged creatures expected to crawl out of Illinois topsoil in the next few days won’t just be ugly.
They’ll also be a little early.
The latest emergence of 17-year cicadas in the northern half of the state could happen as soon as Tuesday, in contrast to previous batches that arrived at the very end of May or beginning of June. Experts say the soil where cicadas lay in wait will reach the requisite 64 degrees sooner this time around, possibly because of global warming.
“Global warming right now is basically accepted as a non-controversial fact, and it’s just there, and things will start to change as a result of that,” said cicada authority Dan Summers, who oversees the entomological collection at the Field Museum of Chicago.
Summers predicts the insects will surface en masse on Friday, May 25, but some naturalists and residents in the Chicago metropolitan region have already reported seeing a few early risers. Catherine Savage of the Lake County Forest Preserve District said a small number of gun-jumping cicadas have emerged looking for mates but likely won’t survive long before getting picked off by birds.
Eighty-four-year-old Albertia McCabe, a longtime occupant of the leafy southwest suburb of Riverside, said she has noticed cicada shells — a telltale sign that some of the insects have arrived and shed their skins.
“You know what? You can’t do anything about it; you just have to accept it,” McCabe said of the pending invasion. “I don’t think the cicadas care whether we’re here or not.”
It’s not known why the periodic cicadas of North America — different from annual cicadas that emerge more frequently — faithfully kick-start their life cycle here every 17 years (13 years in other areas of the country). Experts suspect the prime-numbered interim makes it challenging for some predators to mimic the timing.
The 2007 appearance of “Brood XIII,” as the orange-veined cicadas are known in this region, will unfold in roughly the next month in forest preserves and older communities with substantial trees.
Any day now, cicadas in “nymph” form will tunnel into this world, molt and then go about the loud business of procreating. Males emit the cicadas’ signature trilling noise to attract a mate. Multiplied in a chorus, it can be deafening.
Female cicadas will cut openings into twigs to lay their eggs, and all of the adults will die within a few weeks if they haven’t been eaten by wild animals, pets or adventurous humans.
Yes, some people consume the insects by preparing them or eating them raw.
“To me, they taste like cold canned asparagus or raw potato,” cicada researcher Gene Kritsky of Cincinnati said.
Once deposited, the cicada eggs in the bark will take another six weeks to hatch, and the tiny insects inside will drop to the ground. The new generation will bore into the soil and live underground for the next 17 years by feeding on roots. The cicadas’ next scheduled visit will be 2024.
Cicadas generally do not harm anything — except for young trees or shrubs — but outdoor activities such as weddings and concerts may get upstaged. The most optimum settings can yield up to 1 million cicadas per acre.
“People want to control everything,” said Ron Wolford, an educator with the University of Illinois extension service in Cook County. “I like it when nature says, ‘You may be planning your wedding, but you know what? You’re going to have to put up with us — we only do this every 17 years.’”
“I tell people to sit back and enjoy and don’t get so ruffled about it,” he added.
Besides much of Illinois, Brood XIII also will emerge in swaths of the surrounding states of Iowa, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. Public interest has intensified in the weeks leading up to the emergence.
“It’s spectacular,” said Summers, the Field Museum entomologist. “It’s probably without a doubt the biggest natural history phenomenon that takes place here in Chicago.”
On the Web
A short documentary about 17-year cicadas can be seen at: http://youtube.com/watch?v=6I3CNnLdnQc.
Mike Ramsey can be reached at (312) 857-2323 or email@example.com.