Millions of winged cicadas are set to emerge from their 17-year slumber just under the surface of the soil in the northeastern US. Though not as destructive as the Biblical plague of locusts, the cicadas will be deafening and many will be carrying a psychoactive mold that eats their bodies away while leaving them barely alive.
There are two types of cicadas; annual and periodical cicadas. Annual cicadas emerge in July and last into September. They are fast-moving, and greenish in color. Periodical cicadas, like those in Brood X, appear every 13 to 17 years from May to June. They are red-eyed, sluggish, and emerge by the millions. The Magicicada species of cicada native to the northeastern United States has a 17-year cycle, spending almost the full length of their long lives underground feeding on xylem fluids from the roots of deciduous forest trees in the eastern United States. In the spring of their 13th or 17th year, mature cicada nymphs emerge in the springtime at any given locality, synchronously and in tremendous numbers. Experts estimate that some areas will see as many as 1.5 million cicadas per acre.
After the prolonged developmental phase, the adults are active for only about 4 to 6 weeks. The males aggregate into chorus centers in treetops and attract mates. Mated females lay eggs in the stems of woody plants. Within two months of the original emergence, the lifecycle is complete and the adult cicadas disappear for another 17 years.
This spring, when the temperature hits 64 degrees Fahrenheit, millions of the Brood X cicadas are expected to awake from their 17-year slumber, appearing en masse in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan.
Last year, brood IX emerged from underground in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina.
Cicadas are not harmful and though they can damage fruit and nut orchards, they not destructively voracious like locusts. But they are known for being exceptionally musical, especially when in the throes of their once-every-17-year romantic endeavors. The chorus of crooning cicadas has been described as deafening.
But to make matters worse, many of the cicadas emerging this year may be transformed into zombies, the walking dead. Matt Kasson, an associate professor of plant pathology and mycology at West Virginia University, described his studies in a recent interview with WV Public Broadcasting. Kasson and his colleagues have been studying a fungus called Massospara that is infecting the cicadas after they emerge from the ground. The fungus essentially eats away the entire back half of the cicada and grows in its place. Kasson compares this fungal growth to a “chalky gumdrop” on the back of the cicada. Even though half of their body is missing, fungus-infected cicadas don’t die and actually stay alive.
The fungus contains chemicals such as those found in hallucinogenic mushrooms. The chemicals cause the infected cicadas to trick other cicadas in order to facilitate the spread of the fungus, manipulating male cicadas into flicking their wings like females – a mating invitation – which tempts unsuspecting male cicadas and infects them. The research, “Behavioral betrayal: How select fungal parasites enlist living insects to do their bidding,” was published in the journal PLOS Pathogens.
“That process where the fungus replaces the back half of the body is really why we call these zombie cicadas,” said Brian Lovett, a postdoctoral researcher at WVU.
In true horror movie fashion, Massospora spores gnaw away at a cicada’s genitals, butt, and abdomen, replacing them with fungal spores. Then they “wear away like an eraser on a pencil,” Lovett said.
The fungus manipulates the insects’ behavior to keep the host alive rather than killing them to maximize spore dispersal.
“It starts to do what’s in the interest of the fungus, which is to transmit those fungus spores,” Lovett said. “It goes from being a normal cicada to a cicada that is under the control of this pathogen.”
Even though infected cicadas lose their ability to mate when their hindquarters are replaced by the fungus, they will still attempt to mate to sexually transmit the fungus to healthy cicadas in what researchers described as “hypersexual behavior.”
“In the summer, when the cicadas emerge, a couple of weeks later, the zombie cicadas are going to be outside of your door,” Lovett said
As bizarre as the infection sounds, it is generally harmless to humans and cicadas alike. The insects reproduce at such a rate that the fungi’s extermination of hordes of cicadas has little effect on their overall population.
The invasion of the zombie cicadas will be bothersome and noisy but it will not be remotely as destructive as the infestation of locusts that hit Egypt before the Exodus. Notwithstanding, the image of millions of winged insects crawling through the forests of the northeastern US may give a hint of what can be expected in the end of days. According to Jewish tradition, the ten-plagues will reappear before the Messiah. Rabbi Yosef Berger, the rabbi of King David’s Tomb on Mount Zion, explained this aspect of the Messianic process to Israel365 News, quoting the Prophet Micah.