Chelse Prather, who teaches ecology and biology at the University of Dayton, said cicada eggs live and mature underground for 17 years, which is when the next brood emerges. They eat fluids that run through the vascular system of trees and other plants and emerge from the ground to mate, lay eggs and die. The cicadas are only out for five to six weeks.
Prather said that instead of thinking about the cicadas as scary, noisy bugs, Miami Valley residents should view them as a natural phenomenon.
“It’s one of the most confounding biological phenomenon that occurs in the world,” Prather said. “These insects are some of the longest lived insects that there are, and it’s also the greatest insect emergence on earth. I hope people can be excited about it and marvel in how cool it actually is that we get to live in a place where we get to witness this.”
The cicadas’ sole purpose above ground is to mate and lay eggs, Prather said. Then they die.
Prather said people are feeling anxious about the cicadas for a couple of reasons.
One may be because of a misperception that they might cause a lot of damage. Prather said the cicadas won’t cause damage to plants or people’s homes. They are harmless, she said. Cicadas likely won’t fly into a house or building because they are busy looking for a mate, she said.
The only plants in danger of some damage would be trees planted within the past year, because females lay eggs on the branches. A newly planted tree might not be strong enough to hold them yet. Prather said putting mesh that is smaller than half an inch can protect newly planted trees.
Another thing making people anxious could be the noise cicadas make, Prather said. A single cicada can produce sound as loud as a low jackhammer, or about 90 to 100 decibels loud. Cicadas typically only call during the daylight hours, so Miami Valley residents should be able to rest easy, knowing the bugs won’t keep them up at night.
“The other thing (making people anxious) is just not liking insects,” Prather said. “The idea of hundreds of thousands of insects being around you at one time, that is a concern to people.”
Prather said she would ask people who have that fear, to also keep in mind the cicadas play an important role in the local ecosystem, local food webs and the nutrients in the soil.
Predators that eat the cicadas, like birds, raccoons and possums in the years after the cicadas come out tend to do really well. Prather said cicadas have a lot of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus in their bodies, so coming above the ground distributes those nutrients.
“They’re so important,” Prather said.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 5 to 12 percent of Americans have phobias, and around 7 to 9 percent of children have a specific phobia— such as Entomophobia, or fear of insects.
Waite said the biggest thing that people with cicada anxiety can do to alleviate some of their worry is to talk about it with a friend.
Waite also said desensitizing oneself from the cicadas could help reduce anxiety. Desensitizing can look like browsing cicada photos, educating oneself and reading up on them, and then only going outside for a short period of time or only seeing one live cicada at a time before fully exposing themselves to the insects.
Another thing someone with cicada anxiety can do is think rationally about the bugs and teach others, like children, to do the same.
“Examine your thoughts, not just trying to not think catastrophizing thoughts, but look at your thoughts and really look... Are my thoughts realistic or are they overblown? And remember that cicadas are really harmless, totally harmless,” Waite said. “And they’re gonna be gone in six weeks or so.”
Cicada anxiety can be treated both with this kind of “thought therapy” and with medication, Waite said. Cicada anxiety can also be hereditary.
“There are actual genetic underpinnings, or reasons as to why people may be more or less anxious about insects. It’s actually embedded in our genetics, and those particular phobias are passed on genetically. So you might see people in the same household passing out when they see a needle,” Waite said. “And it’s totally involuntary so you need to be kind to yourself and people around you. Recognize that some people actually have real phobias, and it’s not something they can just simply maybe think themselves out of.”
The coronavirus pandemic may also be making people feel more anxious about the cicadas.
“They’re coming on the heels of the pandemic, where many of us have felt so out of control. This is another place where someone is feeling totally out of control and nature just does it’s thing and I think that’s adding to it this time,” Waite said. “For people that are already having anxiety disorders and panic disorders, they may suffer a bit more and they may need more support, but they also can help themselves, even without professional help (talking about the cicadas and desensitizing themselves).”
Waite said she was also a mental health professional the last time the cicadas emerged 17 years ago and she doesn’t remember people reacting this way.
“It makes me wonder if perhaps there is some anxiety sort of feeding and growing with the social media access that we have now that didn’t really exist before,” Waite said. “Some social media certainly can be positive, people can help each other, but it could also feed some of the worry and fear.”
Prather said that there are some reports of cicada sightings in the Cincinnati area, but it is still a little too early for them to come out in the Dayton region. The ground has to consistently be at 64 degrees, she said. When they do emerge, Prather said they shouldn’t bug people too much.
“Even if you can’t appreciate the actual insects, I hope people can appreciate this event,” Prather said.