Gene Kritsky considers himself a cicada baby, which means only that he was born in 1953 when a bunch of the bugs called Brood X — literally tons of them — left their underground world after 17 years and took wing in Hamilton County, among other places in the country.
With black bodies and bright red eyes, the airborne insects, often mistaken for locusts, have delighted entomologists and sent others into flight or refuge indoors.
Now they're on their way back, emerging in just two short months. Kritsky will take delight, while others, again will take flight.
The prospect excites Kritsky, a scientist and national authority on periodical cicadas; it happens, after all, only once every 17 years. He was here in 1987, the last emergence. He hopes to witness at least another two emergences here in Cincinnati, which would take him into his mid-80s.
Kritsky was in Virginia at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home, during the emergence of a different brood, Brood II in 1996, the same brood Jefferson witnessed and wrote about in 1775.
"It was kind of cool," says Kritsky. "Here I was looking at the descendants."
The first emergence he witnessed in his early 20s was in 1976, when he mapped out Brood XXIII (13-year cicadas) in Illinois.
For Brood X, we'll see periodical cicadas emerging from the ground as nymphs, shedding shells, flying and landing awkwardly on the clothing of pedestrians, filling the air with their song — that's what entomologists call it; others call it loud noise — and finally littering our yards and highways with their carcasses.
Ah, what a glorious sight and sound! At least to Kritsky's way of thinking.
No greeting cards?
The imminent emergence has already started a buzz here and has been well documented by the local media. It's been reported the city is planning to make the most of it, as is the Chamber of Commerce — they want to turn it into a fun event, something to celebrate rather than fear and flee. T-shirts and cicada-free zones are planned, events designed to produce a smile rather than a wince.
Kritsky gauges the timeline this way: When soil temperatures reach 64 degrees in late May, followed by a soaking rain, the nymphs will emerge. They'll shed their shells, and males will begin singing and mating. In early to mid-June, the females will begin laying eggs. By late June, they'll die. Short and sweet, except for those cozy years underground.
Kritsky has already been contacted by couples planning outdoor weddings this spring and summer. He offers advice about where to avoid the emergence — it will number in the billions — but also counsels prospective couples to enjoy, to use it as a benchmark to celebrate unorthodox wedding anniversaries. Instead of a 10th or 15th anniversary, he suggests, why not a 17th? Or, God willing, a 51st?
"We went to Hallmark greeting cards (Web site), and there's not a card for a 17th anniversary," Kritsky says. "I think there should be something that says, 'Cicada.' "
But as much as Kritsky enjoys the role of cultural historian and the news cicadas have generated here over the past 100 years or so, he is foremost a scientist. He's a professor of biology at the College of Mount St. Joseph who has written more than a half-dozen scientific articles as well as a book on periodical cicadas over the years.
Indeed, ask him about why the bugs are so important, and he initially answers, "You mean, other than giving me tenure?"
He and the Mount are gearing up for the emergence, which Kritsky estimates could come as early as May 21, with a Web site (www.msj.edu/cicada/index.html) that invites homeowners to report emergences in their yards by logging in with names, addresses and an estimate of numbers (light, moderate and heavy), all of it essential to tracking numbers of this year's emergence.
"Tell us about it!" Kritsky implores.
Until recently, maybe a decade or so, scientists haven't recruited the help of communities in recording numbers, Kritsky says. That has changed.
"In the past, a lot of people like myself have not had a lot of support from local communities to find out what's going on," he says. "Instead of being afraid of cicadas, get involved with cicadas."
The cicada hotline
The growth of urban and suburban areas in the past several decades have facilitated tracking of numbers and location. Low vegetation, trees in yards and unobstructed sunlight have made for welcome habitat for periodical cicadas.
"It's a wonderful habitat," Kritsky says.
It's also a possible snapshot into evolution.
"Some cicadas came out four years early and formed a reproducing population," Kritsky says. "That's the foundation of forming a new brood — essentially a new reproductive, isolated population by time. That may be the first steps in the evolution of a new species."
As it is, there are four species of 17-year periodical cicadas and another three species of 13-year cicadas.
Cicadas have always been big news here. It was front-page news in The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1868 and 1885, Kritsky points out. He returns to an initial question: What's so good about these critters that inexplicably terrorize so many, even though they neither sting, bite nor carry disease?
The problem is they fly, are clingy and sort of get in your face. But cicadas also offer certain benefits.
"When they emerge from the ground, they create these big holes, so that when it rains, it allows the rainwater to go deeper into ground and faster," Kritsky says. "When they emerge, they're churning up a lot of soil, as much as earthworms in some cases, and it's natural aeration.
"After they start dying, their combined biomass is returned to the soil as nutrients. Even the animals that eat them, they're defecating and returning the nutrients to the soil. There are literally billions of insects, and they all weigh a certain amount. They have protein and nitrogen and stuff. That's a big nitrogen sink. So every 17 years that's a big chunk of nutrients coming into the soil that might otherwise have been leached away by rain.
"The egg-laying provides a natural pruning for trees. Birds, squirrels are going to have a natural nutrient source they normally wouldn't have. It ripples through. So that's what they do in the scheme of things. That's their benefit to the ecosystem."
So basically, Kritsky says, sit back and enjoy them. ©