Brood XIX brings a deafening chorus to the South

Brood XIX is alive, and stalking the South!

The 13-year cicadas of what is known as Brood XIX (the 19th brood) have been living underground since 1998. That was the last time they held their infamous two-month, tree-level mating frenzy. After their long nap, these periodical cicadas woke up and emerged from underground in mid-May, and with them comes an ear-splitting mating call that fills the air now across the rural southern United States. Their activities were somewhat curtailed this year due to cooler than normal and stormy weather throughout the South, but as the days warmed early this week, their loud collective calling couldn’t be ignored in Missouri.

Brood XIX, also known as the Great Southern Brood, is the country's largest group of 13-year cicadas, stretching across 12 states, including Missouri, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Illinois. They hatch in mid-May and are gone by early July.

My wife and I were visiting over the holiday weekend with my niece, on my brother’s farm in far south Missouri. Her boy Zak found three of them and brought them to us for inspection. I had them all at one time crawling on my arm and got to see close-up their delicate carmine-outlined wings and creepy, protruding red eyes.

We woke Monday morning to hear them as background to the spring birds calling – summer tanager, wood peewee, red-eyed vireo – all oblivious to the deafening chorus of the cicadas.

The low-pitched mating calls, all produced by the males of the species, are already so loud that some Georgia residents have mistaken them for the howl of a tornado according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

That's a big racket for an insect that's only an inch-and-a-half long. But despite their daytime chorus, they are otherwise harmless, University of Georgia entomology professor Nancy Hinkle said. "The only minimal problem is that the females lay eggs near the ends of tree branches, and that causes browning of the leaves and might cause the branch tips to fall off. But even that's just nature's pruning service — so next winter, the whole branch won't come off in an ice storm."

Meanwhile, the cicadas provide two important environmental roles. First, they provide a good supply of food for local predators. Wild turkeys will be fat this year. Second, after their two-month breeding cycle, the dying cicadas will help support the very trees they feed off of: "When they die, their carcasses essentially decay and provide a nice nutrient injection back into the soil for the trees," Gene Kritsky, editor-in-chief of the journal American Entomologist, told National Public Radio.

The insects rise from their long slumber when the local soil reaches 65 degrees.

Although their mating calls may be a loud nuisance — hitting up to 85 decibels in places where the insects are most concentrated — it won't be enough to cause any damage, a fear that some Southerners have expressed. "It won't damage anyone’s hearing," Missouri University biology professor Johannes Schul said. "If we were exposed to those levels of noise for years at a time, then we might face an effect, but this outbreak is short and will not have any adverse health effects aside from stressing a few people out."

These periodical cicadas emerge in 17- and 13-year cycles and shouldn't be confused with the variety of cicadas that can be heard every summer. There are three broods of 17-year cicadas, one of which will appear in the summer of 2017.

If you're brave enough, hungry enough, or game for any extreme experience, there are recipes for cicada tacos and other bug-based dishes at The Cicada Invasion blog.

Brood XIX will next rise in 2024.