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Waited 17 Years for Sex, Are Cicadas A Human Health Threat?

Cicadas and human health

Scientists are warning us that an estimated 30 billion 17-year cicadas will emerge from the ground this spring along the east coast of the United States, blanketing trees and emitting a sound that can rival your teenager’s rock music. These insects have waited 17 years for sex, which suggests they may be a bit aggressive, so given their enormous numbers and libidos, are cicadas a human health threat?

Cicadas are strange insects

Imagine living underground for 17 years, chomping away on roots and waiting for the day when you can have sex. No, it’s not the story line of some new science fiction movie: it’s the story of the periodical cicada.

Of the approximately 3,000 different species of cicadas, the one most people are aware of is the periodical cicada, which comes out of the ground every 17 years to mate. Cicadas, or more specifically the male cicadas, are perhaps best known for their ability to make a clicking or buzzing sound.

This sound, which can reach 94 decibels (a lawnmower is about 90 decibels) when there are enough males congregated and buzzing at the same time, is produced by vibrating membranes on the males’ abdomens. The buzzing can act as an alarm system but mostly it is used to attract mates.

Questions about cicadas and human health
Does the arrival of billions of buzzing insects with bulging red eyes to your neighborhood pose any sort of health threat to you and your family? Do these insects bite? Are they poisonous? Will they invade your home and infest your living quarters? Will they harm your outdoor pets?

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The answer to each of these questions is “no.” Although you may see millions of the insects covering trees in your area, periodical cicadas are not like locusts: they do not destroy acres of crops or decimate most trees, although they can damage young trees as they feed and lay their eggs. They don't bite and they don't especially care about humans; they just want to mate.

The cicadas won’t be around long either. Once they emerge from the ground, which they do when ground temperature is exactly 64 degrees, they spend a few weeks in the trees, after which they die and their babies go underground for another 17 years.

The biggest health threat for humans from cicadas may be some interrupted sleep if the males decide to serenade the females outside your bedroom window. In some places, the insects may cover the sidewalks and other walkways, so you theoretically could slip and fall while trying to avoid them.

Otherwise, people who live along the east coast of the United States should prepare themselves for a once-in-17-years opportunity to enjoy the emergence of the cicadas and their song. Rather than a human health threat, the visit by the cicadas would be a real treat for children, who won’t see the insects again until they themselves reach adulthood.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons