The Periodical Cicada Historical Witness

Cicadas in Tree

The Periodical Cicada Historical Witness

Historical Witness

By Michael S. George, Senior Naturalist

The periodical cicada is the longest-lived insect in North America and can be found nowhere else in the world. They emerge in the late spring, after having spent 17 years underground, to mate and complete their lifecycle. To the newly arrived settlers of this continent, they were wholly unknown. The first recorded emergence of periodical cicadas was in 1633 by William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony.

“There was such a quantity of a great sort of flies like for bigness to wasps or bumblebees, which came out of holes in the ground and replenished all the woods, and ate the green things, and made such a constant yelling noise as made all the woods ring of them, ready to deaf the hearers. They have not, by the English been heard or seen before of since…”

This would have been the Brood XIV (Brood 14) periodical cicadas which are found in Massachusetts, and not our Brood X (Brood 10) periodical cicadas which occur here in the Midwest. The first recorded emergence of Brood X occurred in Philadelphia in 1715. Swedish clergyman Andreas Sandel noted curiously that “people split them open and eat them.” A custom we no doubt learned from the Native Americans that would collect great quantities of cicadas and roast them on hot stones.

In 1800 Cincinnatians first witnessed the spectacle of the emerging periodical cicadas. And what did the periodical cicadas witness of Cincinnati in 1800? A small village of some 30 buildings with a total population of around 750 residents.

On June 9th 1868, The Cincinnati Daily Enquirer ran an article on that year’s appearance. This time, they went a bit further in describing the process of emergence,

“From sunset until almost morning they come forth, never coming forth in the open daylight. But it is about sunset, and during the twilight that they push away their light trap door and come forth in astonishing swarms, covering the whole earth with a mass of clumsy, moving creatures, each one instinctively intent on reaching a tree, shrub, fence, or some suitable elevation, up which they crawl with a ludicrous caution, and firmly fastening their wiry hooked feet into the crevices and fibers, compose themselves and await their final transformation, which begins within an hour after they have prepared themselves, and often within a minute.”

Cicada Brood X witnessed other historical events:

  • In 1885, Procter and Gamble Company moved to it’s new Ivorydale location in St. Bernard
  • In 1902, Cincinnati’s population reach 325,000 residents.
  • In 1919, the Cincinnati Redlegs were on their way to winning the National League Pennant, and go on to win the World Championship.
  • In 1936, Union Terminal, the world’s largest half dome, was in full swing as a busy transportation hub
  • In 1953, GE’s newest Evendale Plant began jet engine builds and testing
  • In 1970, cicada’s celebrated the first Earth Day

How very different the world looks today, but somethings will hopefully never change. This spring, the periodical cicadas will emerge from out of holes in the ground, replenish all the woods, and fill the silence of the woods with their constant yelling noise. Photo Courtesy Laura Gilchrist via Unsplash.com