Adrienne Warch of Gallatin, Tennessee, spied some of the Brood XIX cicadas over the weekend of May 4, 2024. Adrienne Warch/Special to The Tennessean
Adrienne Warch of Gallatin, Tennessee, spied some of the Brood XIX cicadas over the weekend of May 4, 2024. Adrienne Warch/Special to The Tennessean
It feels mean to blame the cicadas, since they’re the ones getting eaten. But if you have a lot of ants in your house next year, it could be their fault.

That’s one of the many things biologists plan to study when two broods of the bulbous, red-eyed klutzes emerge simultaneously this spring and briefly cross paths: a convergence that hasn’t happened in more than 200 years.

The 13-year Brood XIX cicadas are climbing from the dirt in the southern U.S. as we speak, and will soon show their faces in portions of Illinois, where they’ll bump into members of the 17-year Brood XIII. The groups haven’t overlapped since 1803, giving biologists a rare opportunity to study what kind of effects they’ll have on local ecosystems.

One of those is certain: a lot of predators will treat the emergences like a Doordash delivery.

Everything from birds to squirrels to a fungus filled with psychedelic drugs will feast on the poor cicadas as soon as they surface after years of underground gestation. Ants get in on the action as well. They devour the adults and – like the freakishly strong monsters they are – even wait for the mating cicadas’ babies to be born.

“When the babies hatch and rain down to the ground (from the trees), the ants are kind of waiting there with jaws open,” said John Lill, a cicada expert and assistant professor of biology at George Washington University.

He’ll be among a group of researchers who will travel to the Chicago area later this spring to see how this sporadic source of food will alter the ants’ behavior.

When Brood X cicadas inundated large swaths of the U.S. in 2021, Lill studied their effect on birds. He and others’ research, later published in the journal Science, found that the newly arrived banquet caused birds to ignore their usual prey. That led to an explosion in caterpillars, which in turn caused more damage to trees and other forest plant life, briefly rewiring the world around us.

This year’s dual arrivals could have a similar effect on ants, he said.

“Ant populations are probably going to show a really positive response to all the extra food, so there will be bigger colonies of ants,” he said. “During the emergence, my guess is they won’t bother to come inside people’s houses and scavenge for food because there’s going to be so much abundant food outside.

“But maybe later, when there are much bigger ant colonies and that food is no longer available …”

Will Evansville see cicadas?

Whether any of that happens in the Evansville area remains to be seen.

In the Midwest, a lot of the cicada action will occur in Illinois. A few of the Brood XIX bugs may drift into Southwestern Indiana or even Western Kentucky, but most maps don’t show them venturing much farther east than Posey County.

“It’s quite possible they’ll spill over a little bit,” Lill said. “You guys are really close.”

We’re usually home to Brood X. And for some reason – like weird-eyed lightning – cicadas rarely hit the same place twice.

That’s part of what makes this year so special. But even though the dual emergences have gotten a lot of attention, Brood XIX and XIII’s area of overlap will be fairly restricted, Lill said – most likely around Springfield, Illinois.

Cicadas loaded psilocybin – and the potential of new broods

Wherever they gather, the cicadas will have one mission: ensuring the survival of the next generation.

Once they emerge, periodical cicadas only live long enough to mate, bump into a few things, and die. Most of them will vanish within a month, leaving exoskeletons in the grass and scores of eggs in the branches of mature trees. Tucked inside will be rice-sized nymphs that hatch, fall to the ground, and do their best to burrow to safety before a hungry predator catches their eye.

The splashiest thing that stands in the way of that is Massospora cicadina, a fungus laced with psilocybin: the active compound in psychedelic mushrooms. Matt Kasson and other researchers at the University of West Virginia broke down the fungus in 2016 and discovered it also contained traces of amphetamines.

It will invade gobs of unlucky cicadas and eat away their insides until their abdomens crack and fall off, replacing their butts with an Einstein-tuft of white spores.

Usually males croon alien-sounding songs to attract females, who respond by flicking their wings. The fungus causes males to do both, thereby luring as many mates as possible. But it’s hard to reproduce without a reproductive system, so the only thing they end up propagating is the fungus itself.

In his paper, Kasson referred to the infected bugs as “flying saltshakers of death.”

More: What are all those noisy bugs? Cicadas explained for kids with printable coloring activity

A Courier & Press story about the phenomenon went mildly viral in 2021, and several media outlets have focused on Massospora this go around. But it’s actually been an issue for a long, long time.

“It wouldn’t be far off to say (the fungus and cicadas) have been together for a million years,” Lill said.

Signs of the fungus have already shown up in southern states, he said, and some people have reached out to experts and asked what they can do to help. The answer, he said, is simple: nothing.

“It’s just part of the biology of the insect. They get transmitted every time, but there’s so many more that don’t that they seem to do just fine,” he said. “It’s just one of the natural enemies that goes along with the cicadas. It's evolved with them.”

And that evolution is still happening. In recent years, some of 17-year cicadas have reached maturation earlier than expected, causing them to emerge four years ahead of schedule. They’re called “stragglers,” Lill said, and their numbers aren’t large enough to constitute a new brood – at least not yet.

But cicadas surface once the soil temperatures inch above 64 degrees or so, and with climate change heating the Earth more and more as time goes on, those stragglers could transform into full-blown emergences. It may happen to 13-year broods as well, creating something we’ve never had before.

“We could see the evolution of nine-year periodical cicadas,” Lill said. “(That) would be pretty novel.”

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