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The cicadas are coming and according to scientists, it's a sight — or really, a sound — to behold.
Periodical cicadas — which are found in the Northeast, typically in the central and eastern parts of the U.S. — make an appearance every 17 years. The forthcoming group, known as Brood X, is expected to emerge from the ground in the billions by late April or May when soil levels warm up to about 64 degrees.
Brood X is made up of three different species of cicadas. "But they all act like one group, one population," Nancy Hinkle, professor of entomology at the University of Georgia, tells Yahoo Life.
How worried should I be about the cicada drone?
The group will crawl out of the ground at night — likely to avoid predators, says Hinkle — in waves over several days. "They'll crawl up on sticks or tree trunks or fence posts and allow their bodies to harden," explains Hinkle. "Underground they're nymphs and have soft bodies. So they have to shed their skin [or exoskeleton] so their wings will be free. It takes an hour or two [for their adult skin] to harden."
And once it hits a certain temperature, says Hinkle, the "singing" starts — and it's not quiet either. In fact, cicadas are one of the noisiest insects. Their singing can be as loud as 100 decibels — the equivalent of a lawnmower about three feet away. But don’t worry about the singing keeping you up at night — cicadas sing during the day.
"Periodical cicadas do not call at night, unless it is very hot during the night," Chris Simon, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, tells Yahoo Life. "Since these are spring cicadas, this is less likely."
Not all cicadas can carry a tune, though. "Only the males sing and they sing for sex," says Hinkle. "That's how they attract the female." Each species of male cicadas also makes its own distinct sound. "You can learn to differentiate between each species just by their sound," she explains.
The serenading tends to get noisier right before the sun goes down, which is when cicadas call it a night. "One last shout out before sunset," says Hinkle. Think of it as last call at the bar.
What's the best way to deal with incessant cicada singing?
But if the singing is bothersome during the day, especially with so many people now working from home, there are steps you can take. Using noise-canceling devices, machines and apps "make more sense because the cicadas' sounds are similar to white noise to begin with," Dr. Steven Holfinger, a sleep medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life.
Holfinger explains that there are two general categories of noise-canceling — active or passive. "Passive noise-canceling is when you try to reduce the volume of sounds, for example using earplugs," he explains. "Active noise-canceling is when headphones play the opposite sound wave to cancel the incoming noise. The point of either passive or active noise-canceling is to make the sound that would be bothersome quieter, while white noise is meant to drown out the sounds by making the environment louder. Overall, for cicadas, I would consider wearing a comfortable set of headphones that provide either active or passive noise reduction if the cicadas are too loud."
However, Holfinger says that "many people will likely adjust to the sound because it is fairly consistent, similar to white noise, which our minds can drown out if it is not excessively loud." Or as Hinkle puts it: "People pay money for white noise generators — here you get it for free!"
What makes Brood X cicadas so special?
Of course, not everyone is a fan of bugs — especially so many at once — but Hinkle suggests embracing the rareness of this event. "This is our generation’s equivalent of Halley's Comet," Hinkle says. "This is something that only occurs only every 17 years. The chance is strong you’ll probably only experience this only four or five times in your entire life."
Simon shares Hinkle's enthusiasm: "They are one of the most amazing natural phenomena in the world!" And unlike some insects, cicadas are "perfectly harmless," says Hinkle. "They can't bite and sting. And they’re lousy flyers. They’re pretty lumbering. Kids can catch them and hold them. When they try to sing, they will vibrate in your hand."
If you live near or within driving distance of where cicadas typically emerge, Hinkle says, "It's a great opportunity for grandparents to take their grandkids out in nature and experience it together. And when those grandkids grow up they can take their kids."
Even scientists who have studied cicadas for years find the musical insects captivating. Hinkle shares that she still finds it fascinating that cicadas know to emerge from underground after exactly 17 years. "It is a mystery," she says.
Produced by Kat Vasquez
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