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article imageMillions of cicadas swarm regions of Alabama

By Elizabeth Cunningham Perkins     May 20, 2011 in Science
Swarms of singing insects are buzzing regions of Alabama and other states, as millions of cicadas hatch from an unusual 13-year youth underground, to spend brief, busy adulthoods eating, chirping and reproducing, before dying off in July.
Meet Brood XIX, one of the largest populations of this odd red-eyed, buzzing insect, the 13-year periodical (or cyclical) cicadas, now swarming up an incessant din in more than half of Alabama's counties, where they last appeared in May 1998, according to the Alabama Agricultural Experimental Station at Auburn University's College of Agriculture.
The more common annual cicadas are green and hatch every late summer, but members of the periodical genus emerge from underground burrows almost all at once, appearing suddenly as if on schedule, after a complex, years-long, multi-stage maturation cycle spent burrowed in the soil. The 13-year and 17-year broods of periodical cicadas stand out in brown to black shades with contrasting bright red eyes and trim.
Because they blanket the environment so rapidly, Brood XIX often gets nicknamed the "13-year locusts," though cicades are related to aphids, the ScienceBuzz blog points out, not the short-horned grasshoppers (the locusts' family). This large brood also ranges west into Louisiana and north into southern Iowa and Illinois.
But these humming outbreaks pass without significant environmental impact, for all the wondrous spectacle and unavoidable disturbance they bring, though smaller trees may suffer major damage, writes Associate Professor of Entomology L. L. Hyche at Auburn in an article about the insects.
After emerging, the males sing nonstop until they attract mates. The females choose silently. Enterprising humans residing amid the ruckus make the best of it by devising tasty cicada recipes and cooking up extraordinary meals of the high-protein bugs.
Scientific American quoted an expert explaining they taste like "cold canned asparagus, very green."
Periodical cicadas are native to, and found only in, North America. The 17-year periodical cicadas have the longest lifespans of all insects on the continent, according to the College of Agricultural Science at Penn State, though they live only three to four weeks after hatching.
While cicadas sing rowdily dawn to dusk, they do not bite or sting, and many photographers eagerly await their infrequent riots.
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