They're Baaack

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GRAPHIC BY LOW TWEETEN

Every 17 years Brood X cicadas rise from the ground, to grow, eat and mate in the eastern U.S.

They're not locusts (which are a type of grasshopper), but for much of the Eastern U.S. this year, they're certainly a plague. Some cicadas appear almost every year, but the Brood X periodical cicada, as scientists call this variety , is the big one: the world's largest insect swarm. For the next five weeks, sidewalks will be littered with crunchy brown shells, ant treetops will be buzzing with an ear-splitting screech.

Cicadas look scary with their vaguely devil-shaped heads, but they're really harmless, and some communities even look forward to their arrival. Cincinnati, Ohio, for example, is planning cicada festivals, parties and even meals. Gene Kritsky, a cicada expert, is testing out a new recipe this year, cicada chowder. But entomologist John Cooley, who studies cicadas at the University of Connecticut, won't touch it. "Seventeen years underground just to end up as someone's dinner?" he says. "They're too marvelous to waste."


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Little drummer boys
The deafening shrill that can be heard almost a mile away is the mating cry of the male cicada. His instrument is called a tymbal, which produces a popping sound in his hollow abdomen. Males from each of the three Brook X species have their own song. One sounds like pha-roah, another makes a sizzling noise, and the last — and rarest — makes a rhythmic call that sounds like a lawn sprinkler

The good, the bad (and they're ugly)
BENEFITS
Cicadas do not sting or bite, and they are not poisonous. The insects don't eat much, and healthy trees can actually benefit from the pruning that takes place when branches die from the hundreds of slits the females cut to lay eggs. On the ground, cicada exit holes aerate the soil

NUISANCES
Aside from the noise and later the smell from the piles of dead insects, there is some evidence that cicada root sucking can restrict tree growth. And if you were planning to hold an outdoor wedding this month, you may want to reschedule it or move it indoors

LIVE LONG AND PROSPER
Although the queen termite has a longer lifespan, the 17-year cicada lives longer underground — more than 95% of its life. By comparison:

Cicada (Brood x) 17 years
Queen honeybee 7 years
Monarch butterfly 6 months

Source: Christine Simon and John Cooley, University of Connecticut; Gene Kritsky, College of Mount St. Joseph; Keith Clay, Indiana University; National Geographic; Cicadamania.org