Illinois is hit by cicada chaos. This is what it’s like to see, hear and feel billions of bugs

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Marvin Lo, tree root scientist at Morton Arboretum, collects fallen periodical cicada specimens at the base of a tree on Thursday, June 6, 2024, at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois.

RIVERWOODS, Ill. (AP) — The ground seemed to wave at night, teeming with insects. Crawling cicada nymphs, striving to rise higher after seventeen years underground, marched en masse toward and into the trees, pausing to shed their skin and emerge as adults. And then the fun began.

Cicada chaos blooms and flies. Trillions of once-hidden baby bugs live in the air, in trees, and on people’s shirts, hats, and even faces. They have red eyes, loud and playful.

“What you saw was biblical,” says biologist Gene Kritsky, who has been hunting periodical cicadas for 50 years but was still amazed by the three to five million cicadas in a small patch of Ryerson Conservation Area north of Chicago. “There are things I saw this time that I’ve never seen before.”

It is a unique spectacle in the United States, the last of the triple crown of rare prophesied natural wonders.

First there was the solar eclipse in April, followed by the Northern Lights in May, unusually far south. Now the great double periodic rise of cicadas in 2024 – an event of a magnitude not seen since 1803 – has erupted from below, joining the previous phenomena in the sky. It lasts weeks longer than the other two volatile natural rarities, but in many places the cicada invasion is beginning to wane.

The males sing for sex and will not stop until they get permission from the flapping wings of a female cicada. There were places in Illinois where the decibel level reached 101, louder than a lawn mower, and flowed in waves like an ever-present buzzing drone that resembled aliens descending from a science fiction movie. It is punctuated by bursts of the deeper note “fffaaaro, fffaaaro.”

The sound is abundant in Chicago’s suburbs such as Oak Brook, but has already faded further south in the state, including where two broods overlap. In an asphalt-laden shopping plaza in DuPage County, crickets stalking the branches of the lone tree drowned out the buzzing hoses and spinning brushes of the adjacent automatic car wash.

David Quinn, who was visiting the Chicago area from Northern Ireland, said: “As we were driving we thought something was wrong with the car. All that noise. It’s the bugs.”

Buggy tourism

Cicada hunters in 18 states in the Midwest and South have submitted photos of the insects to the Cicada Safari app, usually concentrated in two areas, each with an emergence of different broods. The Northern Illinois brood, called Kritsky. The Great Southern Brood, which arrives every 13 years, extends from Virginia to Missouri and from southern Illinois to Georgia.

In central Illinois, especially around Springfield, the two broods almost overlap. But it is difficult to say to which brood a cicada belongs.

At the Lincoln Memorial Garden in Springfield, Executive Director Joel Horwedel thought he would put up a pushpin map of the United States to track where visitors came from. He wasn’t thinking big enough. At the bottom of the map, under a scribble ‘Out of USA’, it says ‘Japan Belgium Lithuania Germany England Japan (Kyoto)’.

“It’s really incredible how many people we get,” Horwedel said.

Research entomologist Rebecca Schmidt of the U.S. Department of Agriculture said when she gets a call about insects, it’s usually something bad and scary, like murder hornets. Periodic crickets are different and “people come to us for good reasons, like ‘tell us more, we’re really excited about this,'” she said.

“It’s a nice little gateway to these amazing things that the natural world does, some of which we can predict with great accuracy,” Schmidt said.

Retiree Cindy Harris of Springfield, wearing a T-shirt that read “I survived the cicada invasion and all I got was this shirt (and a pair of earplugs)” that she won for posing as a cicada at a toy skateboard, walked through the Lincoln Garden and pointed out crickets.

“I don’t know why I’m fascinated by it,” Harris said.

They’re just weird, with powerful jaws and urine streams and a zombie fungus that sometimes hits them.

Fascination of cicada

Jennifer Rydzewski, an insect ecologist at DuPage County Forest Preserve, donned a cicada hoody costume — complete with bulging red eyes made by a 3D printer — which she wore in an educational social media post and participated in a cicada walking tour .

For her video bug performance, she studied how the insects move.

“You went outside and the sidewalks were completely covered in them, they were all marching in the night,” she said of the still wingless nymphs.

“They’re very hunchbacked, just kind of slow, almost alien to me, crawling with all their little appendages,” Rydzewski said. But she adds: “They look really cute.”

Lily Tolley, a six-year-old from Springfield, can’t get enough of the crickets. She even feeds them to her lizard, Dart. When someone came near her front door, she rushed to her doorbell camera and presented it up close and personal. She can tell the difference between the mute females and the noisy males, what the cicada parts are and how it feels “a little prickly” when a cicada walks towards you. Don’t worry, she quickly adds, it won’t hurt.

Yet many people are frightened or annoyed by the trillions of flying insects that die in a rather tantalizing pile on the ground shortly after mating.

“Creepy crawlies are probably the most common fear that people have,” says Martin Antony, chairman of the psychology department at Toronto Metropolitan University and director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Laboratory.

Long ago, humans had to be alert to danger, so there’s an evolutionary reason, he said.

“There is nothing dangerous about crickets, but crickets may share traits with other animals that are potentially threatening or transmit diseases,” says Antony.

Useful, not harmful

The only possible danger is to young trees, especially when the females cut nicks into branches to lay their eggs, Rydzewski said. So many newly planted trees are covered in white protective mesh – a contrast to the black-winged insects that line some mature trees.

In general, crickets play an important role in the local ecosystem as fertilizer, aerating the soil and providing food for birds and other animals, says Marvin Lo, a tree root biologist at the Morton Arboretum. He collected cricket carcasses from a certain area and ground them into a stinking powder in his laboratory to measure and test them later.

The arboretum was full of crickets, cicada peepers and scientists looking at the insects. The creatures did not disappoint. They were there with power and strangeness. The Associated Press has found a blue-eyed cicada – a one-in-a-million find.

Kritsky also found his first blue-eyed cicada in the Ryerson Forest. It’s a numbers game. Even if it is one in a million, on a small piece of land there will still be a few because there are so many crickets. The biologist who wrote a book about this double rise said the cicada invasion is dying down, but he’s still looking for more.

“In about two weeks it will be noticeably over,” Kritsky said. “It was amazing.”