It may seem like a biblical plague, but experts who study the 17-year cicada swarm say it’s all part of a natural order of things.
“They will be super loud,” said Matthew Kasson, associate professor of forest pathology and mycology at West Virginia University. “About three different species of cicadas will emerge and all will be calling for mates. Screaming into the void.”
What’s known as the Great Northern Brood of cicadas is expected to emerge from the ground en masse in the Eastern Panhandle in mid-May and June. The region is expected to have one of the largest concentrations of the bug-eyed beauties when they appear.
“There are literally tens of billions of them,” Kasson said of the coming invasion.
After living in the ground for 13 to 17 years, the cicadas will emerge as nymphs, without wings, until they climb up a tree and molt. Then they’ll show their distinctively bulging, blood-red eyes. Their bodies will be about three inches long.
The collective buzzing of their wings will be loud and constant during the few weeks they appear.
“We really don’t know how many will actually be in Jefferson County,” acknowledged Emily Morrow, agriculture and natural resources agent for the West Virginia University Extension Service for Jefferson County.
Still, children and adults may be afraid of or mesmerized by the insects simply because of their size and numbers—and, of course, unavoidable noise, Morrow said.
Both Morrow and Kasson emphasized that the cicadas pose no harm to humans.
“They don’t bite or sting,” he said. “You might avoid areas where they are congregating. They may be sunning themselves in a field before they begin flying. They could accidentally fly into you.”
During one cicada emergence years ago Kasson recalled driving one of his students who offhandedly stuck his hand out the window. A cicada splattered at a highway speed.
“It was grotesque,” the professor recalled succinctly.
Motorists driving on Interstate 81, in the Martinsburg area in particular could have some messy encounters with the creatures.
The abundance of trees along the highway, Kasson said, will likely attract cicadas, which consider sap a nutritious meal.
The cicadas are expected to give gardeners a free and harmless tree pruning, Kasson added. And the cicada carcasses that the birds don’t eat after the emergence will make for rich fertilizer.
“They won’t eat the vegetables but they may inadvertently land on them,” he said.
Like the sidewalk smears that’ll follow in their wake, however, the damage the cicadas bring won’t be serious or lasting, Kasson said.
Cooking with cicadas
Some people won’t let protein- and nutrient-rich cicadas go to the birds. Cicada cookbooks even help people seize a gourmet opportunity from the insect’s swarms.
The bugs reportedly have a creamy texture and a taste similar to shrimp.
If you’re willing to try adding the insects to your diet, check out “CICADA-LICIOUS: Cooking and Enjoying Periodical Cicadas,” a recipe book that includes instructions for making Cica-Delicious Pizza, Chocolate-Covered Cicadas and Emergence Cookies.
Investigate the buzz
To allay fears about the coming cicada emergence, West Virginia University Extension Service for Jefferson County will hold an online Zoom presentation on April 15 at 7 p.m.
Tracy Leskey of the USDA Agricultural Research Station in Kearneysville will lead the presentation.
To register, visit the Jefferson County extension service’s website at extension.wvu.edu/Jefferson.