Summer days bring us occasional wonders right in the air around us.
Earlier, it was the flashing of the fireflies. Now, it is the gliding of the cicadas.
Perhaps one or two days of summer, you will discover cicadas by the dozens flying around low. They just have emerged from the ground after a year in hiding – or even up to 17 years of living underground.
The wonder of it all is how they all magically appear on the very same morning. You can see them gather their bearings, learning to fly, discovering what it is to be not only above ground but also airborne.
As the morning goes on, they lift higher, then higher and go a little farther. By afternoon, half are gone, and the rest are swooping higher and wider.
There is a special magic to wonder, when we don’t know much about something and just relish the fact that it is, that it exists, that it happens.
Then again, there’s understanding what you’re seeing. I asked Joe Keiper, executive director of the Virginia Museum of Natural History, about cicadas.
Reading already has told me that there are more than 190 varieties of cicadas in North America and more than 3,390 varieties in the world. Some are annual and others come out after a certain number of years, going up to 17. You may remember that a 17-year group came out in this area in 2013.
One of a group of 15 surviving broods of periodical cicadas in America, that brood stretched from New York to North Carolina. They come out on a spring evening when the soil temperature at least 8 inches deep is above 63 degrees.
Keiper told me in an email that what I probably was admiring was the annual or “dog-day” cicada, the most common species in southern Virginia. There are several species of them that are around at the same time, but they don’t emerge at a specific time, because adults of all species appear to be active from June through September, he said.
“The ‘dog day’ cicada has a 3-year life cycle,” he wrote. “Adults lay eggs in twigs or bark. When the eggs hatch, the larvae drop to the ground and burrow into soil, where they feed on tree roots (suck juices from the roots). Their body is geared genetically to ‘count’ three tree cycles, probably sensing when leaves are out and the tree is sending food downward for storage in the roots. After the third tree cycle (third full year), the fully grown larva crawls out of the soil and up the tree, where it sheds its skin to liberate the winged adult. “
That 17-year cicada brood that lives in Martinsville is due again in 2029, he wrote. However, cicada appreciators have something to look forward to: Brood IX (a different group) of the 17-year cicada is due next year, in Virginia west of Blacksburg.
Cicadas don’t bother anything. They don’t bite us humans or our pets, and they leave vegetables and flowering plants alone.
They just sit around in trees, where the males sing to find mates. They do what it takes to ensure the next generation, then die.
Enjoy them while you can.
Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.