Mason Environmentalist Sees Cicada Emergence as a Learning Opportunity

Posted: May 1, 2013 at 1:10 pm, Last Updated: May 2, 2013 at 7:09 am

Print Friendly

By Tara Laskowski

by borazivkovic from Flickr Creative Commons

After 17 years underground, this kind of  cicada will soon be everywhere. Photo by borazivkovic from Flickr Community Commons

Do not be alarmed in a few weeks when Mason’s campuses are suddenly overrun by visitors — and we aren’t talking about graduates and their families.

The next periodical cicadas, Brood II, will be emerging after 17 years underground, and they will make their presence known. A different species has a 13-year cycle but will not emerge this year.

For Thomas Lovejoy, University Professor in Environmental Science and Policy, this emergence is exciting because it offers a learning opportunity.

These cicadas are one of a very few species with a life cycle that is a large prime number, Lovejoy explains. “They do this so that their predators cannot build up. They come out in very large numbers at very odd times, and their predators cannot make a dent.”

Brood II will emerge in mid to late May in the Carolinas, the Washington, D.C., area and other parts of the northeastern United States.  With transparent, glistening wings and deep red eyes, the cicadas may look like something from a 1950s creature feature, but the bugs are essentially harmless. The worst they will do is make a lot of noise with a loud, annoying buzz that is used to attract mates.

“It’s a fascinating process really,” Lovejoy says. “You might feel like you’ve run into a science fiction movie, but really it’s just nature showing all its diversity.”

The cicadas have only a few weeks above ground, where they mate and then lay eggs on the tips of branches of trees. The larvae develop there, and by midsummer they drop down and burrow underground where they will attach themselves to a tree root and live there for 17 years.

In midsummer, some trees may look like they had a light pruning, but that’s about as destructive as cicadas get. “They don’t bite, they don’t sting, and they won’t ruin your trees,” Lovejoy says.

And although cicadas might be a treat to eat in the Orient, Lovejoy wouldn’t recommend them for a meal. “Maybe with a lot of ketchup?” he jokes.

Write to Robin Herron at

Leave a Comment