For Dan Mozgai, a New Jersey marketing pro, insects are the perfect vacation. Lots and lots of insects.
However, they can’t just be accidental mistakes. It must be periodic cicadas.
The animals spend almost their entire life underground and live on sap from tree roots. Then, in the spring of their 13th or 17th year of life, they tunnel out synchronously and in large numbers, depending on the brood, in order to experience a brief mating mania for adults, which is set to the sonorous soundtrack of the calls of the males.
Mozgai knows the siren song of the periodic cicadas well. He packed his car at least ten times and drove nearly 30,000 miles on America’s roads, from Maryland to Mississippi, Kansas to Kentucky, to follow him.
“They almost have a personality,” says Dan Mozgai of periodic cicadas. Here he is holding a Magicicada Cassini.
“I’ll go anywhere,” he says.
He is about to leave the house in search of the insects. This spring, for the first time since 2004, a group of cicadas known as Brood X appeared. Think of this as the Cicada Olympics. Brood X is one of the largest groups of 17-year-old cicadas, and 15 eastern states plus Washington, DC will see a lot of black beetles with red eyes.
The 52-year-old Mozgai is one of those cicadas who regularly devote their free time to tracking periodic cicadas. These citizen scientists tour the country taking numerous photos and meticulously recording data on where certain species appear, what time of day they sing, how they react to predators, and what kind of deciduous females lay their eggs in Japan.
Call them the cicada hunters.
They help scientists better understand the behavior and relationships of the broods with one another and investigate larger questions about biodiversity, ecology and climate change. Because periodic cicadas are temperature sensitive, patterns of different broods and species reflect climatic changes.
“I like to contribute to scientific research,” says Mozgai.
“It’s like an alien invasion, like in a movie.”
Dan Mozgai, citizen scientist
The return of the periodic cicadas usually begins in early to mid-May (although it could come earlier) and lasts until late June. This year, Mozgai will travel to western New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania to get up close and personal with his favorite insects from their underground hiding spots.
“It’s amazing because you’re surrounded by thousands, maybe millions of these creatures that weren’t there the day before,” says Mozgai. “It’s like an alien invasion, like in a movie.”
It is believed that so many periodic cicadas appear at the same time that they can dodge predators and move on to mate and start the cycle over. Needless to say, not everyone welcomes the idea that millions of insects descend like a biblical plague. But even those who view the influx as a loud, annoying nuisance can hardly deny that they are witnessing nature unfold on an impressive scale.
The cicadas usually start coming out when the ground temperatures reach 18 degrees Celsius 20 centimeters below the ground. “That seems to be the trigger that causes them all to show up in one area within a few days or weeks,” says Gary Parsons, an entomologist at Michigan State University. A warm rain often leads to their occurrence.
It is a spectacle of picture and sound, one of the wonders of the insect world.
“It’s amazing that they can track such a long period of time so closely and appear in sync in every location,” says Chris Simon, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. “They bring out the inner child in many people and remember the excitement of their youth when they first saw them.”
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Include Greg Holmes among them. The 59-year-old photojournalist fondly remembers riding his green bike around Joplin, Missouri, as a child and seeing annual cicadas on logs. On warm nights he heard them hum and rattle and saw their translucent wings backlit by street lamps. They were part of the suburban landscape, as important to summer as drinking frozen lemonade and splashing through sprinklers.
Those early Midwestern moments turned Holmes into an adventurous, nature-loving ghost who can effortlessly rattle species of cicada: Magicicada septendecim. Magicicada Cassini. Neocicada hieroglyphica.
“If you think bugs are gross, there’s probably nothing anyone can say to change your mind,” says Holmes. “If you’re a citizen scientist, the grown-up form of a young child who always had microscopes, telescopes and fossils to look at, cicada research is for you.”
Greg Holmes tracked Brood XIX, a group of 13-year-old cicadas in Missouri in 2011.
Holmes – a fan of roadside attractions who writes a lively travel blog under the name Ace Jackalope – drives around the country with a magnetPuck was stuck to the roof of his Toyota Avalon and a notebook with a small numeric keypad was stuck to the steering wheel. This year, probably in mid-May, he’ll be driving from his home in Hutchinson, Kansas, to a cicada hotspot in Maryland.
“When you’re out and about and hear a certain type, enter a numeric code,” he explains. “Since the GPS is connected to the computer, it records exactly where that was.”
With three 17-year-old species that make up Brood X, Holmes will enter nine codes – one for no activity, one for light activity, and one for heavy activity. He takes out his camera and thinks about the best way to capture the small winged creatures. Sometimes he just stops and takes a breath.
It is “endless amazement,” he says of his cicada adventures. “It’s not getting old.”
The last time Brood X came up, George W. Bush was president, the last episode of Friends had just aired, and Mark Zuckerberg had started Thefacebook, Facebook’s predecessor, only months earlier.
“Those who weren’t alive 17 years ago, or were too young and can’t remember … are going to have quite an experience,” says Gene Kritsky, Dean of Behavioral and Natural Sciences at Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati University and recognized cicada expert.
As soon as the 17-year-old cicadas crawl out underground after years, they climb onto the next vertical surface. They shed their exoskeletons and inflate their wings. Then the mating frenzy begins. It cannot be overlooked when the males start sending out their high-pitched mating song via sound-producing structures, so-called tymbals, on both sides of their abdomen. The noise can exceed 90 decibels, about as much as a motorcycle about 8 meters away.
Hear the 17 year old cicadas
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The insects do not bite, sting, or carry disease, and while women can damage young trees by laying so many eggs in their branches, the egg-laying naturally also prunes trees, resulting in more flowers and fruit in the years to come. Periodic cicadas aerate large amounts of the soil when they emerge en masse, and when they die, their decaying bodies enrich the soil with nutrients.
To track cicada distributions over time, researchers need detailed, high quality data. Holmes, Mozgai, and their fellow citizen scientists play a key role in gathering such important information, as periodic cicada populations cover enormous areas of the country and the beetles only appear above ground for limited periods of time every year.
Scientist Chris Simon, husband Steve Chiswell, and young friend Dylan Kennan search for Brood X cicadas that remain in the ground after emerging four years in 2017 in Washington, DC.
According to Simon, cicada hunters help fill in the center of the brood distribution so scientists and their map teams can focus on the edges. Amateurs have even pointed out unknown populations to scientists.
Mozgai first became interested in periodic cicadas in the mid-1990s when he started creating random websites to teach himself how to code. When Brood II showed up in his hometown of Metuchen, New Jersey, he set up a simple website to share his photos. There weren’t many cicada websites back then, and people interested in the phenomenon turned to him. His interest in cicadas grew.
Now he’s an expert running Cicada Mania, an extensive online resource for everything to do with cicadas. He is the administrator of a Facebook cicada discussion and study group of more than 700 members and knows other cicada enthusiasts across the country.
When in active cicada hunting mode, Mozgai spends up to seven hours a day focusing on the insects. He even made his own app to collect data on the creatures.
“You almost have a personality,” he says. “Because they’re a little taller, you can see their whole face. When they first show up, they’re very shy so you can pick them up and interact with them.”
Mozgai also credits the cicadas for bringing them to parts of the country that they might not otherwise visit. Because of them, he was at Graceland in Memphis and in Metropolis, Illinois, a small town devoted to all things Superman.
But the cicada-curious do not have to be as committed to cicadas as Mozgai to get on the trail. With a free app called Cicada Safari, available for iOS and Android, anyone with a smartphone can record sightings by uploading photos and short videos. Developed by Kritsky and others at Mount St. Joseph University, the app automatically adds the date, time, and geographic coordinates to each observation for real-time and future studies.
Cicada Safari users submitted nearly 8,000 photos and videos in 2020.
“Not only [the app] Map Brood IX, but it also confirmed the emergence of four other periodic cicada broods outside the cycle, “says Kritsky.” It had never been seen before. ”
This year, the developers of Cicada Safari hope that the app for Brood X will be huge with at least 50,000 observations. “This is the big one,” says Kritsky. “An event of the generation.”
Who knows? A whole new breed of cicada hunters could emerge.
Exoskeletons of newly emerged adult cicadas appeared under a tree in Reston, Virginia in 2004 when Brood X last appeared. After being above the ground, the periodic cicadas shed their skin from their larval skin, inflate their wings, and begin to mate, making significant noise.
Richard Ellis / Getty Images