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Explaining the emergence of 17-year cicadas

Brood X makes a mark on central Ohio

After being buried 8 feet underground for nearly 20 years, the cicadas known as ‘Brood X’ are making their presence known.

David Shetlar, professor emeritus of entomology at The Ohio State University, and who is affectionately known as the “Bug Doc,” says Brood X bugs are breaking out of their shells now but will be gone by the end of June.

“It takes them about six or seven hours to complete the emergence process. The little nymph comes up, climbs up some vertical surface to where it’s leaning back just a little bit, splits the back of its exoskeleton and the new adult emerges from that,” he said. “And it’s white. It’s a snowy, creamy-white color when it emerges. It will finally wiggle out of that exoskeleton, hold on with its legs and then it will expand the wings.”

Shetlar says cicadas help with the growth of trees, making their foliage more dense by pruning the branches and then acting as fertilizer. 

“There could be thousands of them – pounds of them come out from underneath a tree. Well, after they lay eggs, they all die and drop back to the ground. And their dead bodies, as they decompose, return nutrients back to the soil. And so, we’ve actually also documented that if you take a look at the growth rings for a couple of years after the cicada, they’re bigger growth rings.”

In addition to being good for the environment, there are a few other things people may not know about cicadas.

“Cicadas have two kinds of eyes like many insects. They have compound eyes, the big red ones that can actually form an image. They can see you moving and coming. Then they have these simple eyes that we call ocelli, which really only see light in dark,” Shetlar said. “They’re the turn-on, turn-off switch for the cicadas.”

What many find fascinating about the cicadas is they go into hiding for so long, and then come out of hiding to live just a fraction of that time. The last time Brood X surfaced, Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook from his Harvard dorm room. It was also the year Google created Gmail and the hit-comedy TV series “Friends” had their final episode. 

Now, 17 years later, Zuckerberg’s platform is popular around the world and the cast of “Friends” is re-emerging as well.

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