After 17 years in hiding, millions of tiny creatures with bulging orange eyes are digging their way out of the ground from Connecticut to North Carolina.
The 17-year cicadas are back.The 11/2-inch-long black bugs with iridescent wings have the longest lifespan of any insect but only live above ground as adults for 21/2 weeks before they die. This Eastern group or brood was last sighted in 1979; other populations appear in different years.
"There is nothing else to approach that in the entire entomological world," Yale University entomologist Charles Remington said Monday while surveying the return of the bugs at Connecticut's aptly named Sleeping Giant State Park. "They'll all be dead by the end of June."
Found only in the United States east of the Great Plains, 17-year periodical cicadas tunnel into the ground after hatching, some digging as deeply as 8 feet. Beneath the surface, the nymphs slowly suck the sap from tree roots for nourishment.
After 17 years, they burrow to the surface and climb trees and shrubs. There, they shed their crunchy skins and harden into maturity. They never eat while above ground; they are too busy reproducing.
The adult males begin the mating ritual by emitting a whining song that attracts the females. The chorus from one colony's male insects is so loud that it can drown out the sound of a lawn mower.
Once the bugs mate, the females cut slits into tree branches, where they deposit 400 to 600 eggs. The adults quickly die, but the eggs hatch in a few weeks and the young drop to the ground. The young cicadas dig below the surface and begin the cycle again.
Unlike common large green cicadas found every year in back yards, periodical cicadas stay hidden for years before emerging in dense colonies.
Different broods of the insects hatch at varying times in several regions of the country.
There is no telling how many will hatch from Connecticut to North Carolina, Remington said, but Hamden's single colony likely will have 2.5 million insects.
Their emergence will be a boon for robins and other birds, which often gorge on the creatures that Remington describes as "the tastiest insects in the world."
So tasty, in fact, that Remington and his colleagues are planning to partake. He has created a stir-fry recipe for the rare insects, which are a delicacy in central Japan. Remington recommends boiling the newly hatched adults while they are still soft.