These insects only emerge once every 17 years: Meet the man who’s been watching them since 1965

For the first time in a generation, the month of May will bring the emergence of the 17-year cicada to Summit County, Ohio. Dubbed ‘Brood V’, these red, incredibly noisy but completely harmless insects only emerge from the earth in swarms once the soil reaches 64 degrees, eight inches below the surface.

The two-inch-long critters—not to be mistaken for grasshoppers—only live about six weeks after their initial appearance, crawling up trees to molt, mate and lay their eggs in the branches, their last act before dying. As the swarms start to perish, the larvae offspring emerge from their lofty birthplaces and fall to the ground seeking refuge for another 17 years.

It’s an absolutely fascinating life cycle, one we at Love Nature had to learn more about. So we got in touch with Northfield Center Trustee Paul Buescher, who ran us through what he’s seen of these amazing insects over the 50 years he’s been watching them

Hi Paul. What was your first experience of seeing the 17-year cicadas?
My first experience with the cicadas, at the age of 12, was in 1965. Our entire region was literally covered with the cicadas that were crawling and flying everywhere. I can recall a rather funny incident that occurred at St. Barnabas, my Catholic grade school. We were outside during recess, with all the kids chasing or being chased by the cicadas. Of course the boys were having fun but the girls were freaking out and constantly screaming. At the end of recess, I caught two cicadas and put them in my pocket and went back to class.

One of the girls who sat in front of me had long red hair that always ended up in my way on my desk. After class began and under the watchful eyes of some of my buddies, I took the two Cicadas out of my pocket and placed them on her hair. We watched as the ‘little guys’ slowly crawled up her hair. She eventually felt something moving and grabbed one with her hand. When she saw what she grabbed she let out with an ear-piercing scream. The nun ran over to her and took both cicadas in her hand and said, ‘Oh those are just some of those harmless bugs’ and then threw them out of the window. We all got a good laugh and amazingly nobody ‘finked’ on me!

Cicada Laying Eggs
Photo by Paul G. Buescher

Outside of school, I witnessed animals chasing these and while fishing at a local lake, I remember seeing the fish biting and swallowing the Cicadas as they landed on the water. The local songbirds also had a good feast. Needless to say, 1965 saw some well fed and huge bluegill, bass and birds!

In what area do the insects usually emerge?
There really is no one single area of emergence. They show up everywhere throughout our region, although their numbers are much larger in and near wooded areas. The only comparison that I can give is the occasional emergence of the ‘Canadian Soldiers’ or Mayflies along Lake Erie. There are so many of them that you can hear vehicles crunching them with their tires.

Does this location change every 17 years or is it always the same general region?
To the best of my recollection it’s the same throughout our general region. The only exception is in very localised areas that have had significant disruptions to the soil such as large scale construction.

What inspired you to take pictures of their lifecycle?
Both my brother and I have been photographing wildlife and nature for as long as I can remember. The amazing 17-year lifecycle of the Cicadas alone is what inspired me to observe and photograph these rare events. Think about it, most people under the age of around 25 or so have little or no recollection of the Cicadas. It’s nice to be able to share the stories and to show them what is coming!

What have you learnt through your photography of the insects?
Watching and photographing these amazing creatures just reinforces my respect for nature. It also raises some questions—why do they wait for 17-years? Why not five or 10, etc.? They only emerge once every 17-years when the soil reaches 64-degrees at a depth of 8-inches; why? I doubt if observation or photography will answer those questions but it will keep people like me thinking.

When did you first started photographing the cicadas?
I began in 1982 but more so in 1999 when I finally obtained the macro photography equipment needed to photograph them properly.

Has your equipment changed since each emergence?
Yes, and significantly. In 1999 there really wasn’t any digital equipment available. Back then we used film, particularly slide film and had to wait for the film to be developed. You never really knew how the photos turned out until you got them back from the processor. Today, both my brother and I use high end Canon digital cameras with a multitude of macro, wide angle and telephoto lenses.

What do the local community think about the cicadas?
Those old enough to remember past cicada events view them simply as pesky bugs. It will be interesting to see how the younger folks feel about them in a few more weeks! As an elected leader of my community, I send an email newsletter to hundreds of my residents. In my recent edition I told them about the coming cicadas and received many comments. I told them about how I looked forward to how my two dogs would react by chasing them. Many of the comments told about how they fondly remember how their own cats and dogs did just that. Overall however, the residents simply said that the cicadas only come around once every 17-years and that they would accept and deal with them.

Cicada on Leaf - 093
Photo by Paul G. Buescher

The cicadas emerging this month are Brood V; how are the insects different from other broods?
Other Broods emerge at different times throughout the eastern United States. Simply put, Brood V is our turn. We also have annual Cicadas, which look identical to the Brood V but they are green in colour (Brood V are red) and their numbers are very low. In years past I can recall only a few dozen in my own yard.

Could you describe the sound the cicadas make?
The only sound that I can compare to the cicadas is the sound of toads, only much higher in frequency. Try whistling at the highest frequency that you can and then hum at the same time. You can also compare the sound to some crickets. Whatever the comparison is you need to multiply it by the thousands to begin to understand the constant sound that you will hear both day and night for at least a few weeks.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
While most people will view the cicadas as a nuisance, I view them as old friends coming back for a brief visit. This phenomenon is truly a marvel of nature. I also have two dogs, Rusty and Sandy, who chase everything that flies. I look forward to seeing how they will handle the cicadas. I just hope they don’t gain too much weight!

Thanks Paul. 


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