Close this search box.

Shell’s Covert: ’17 Years, Cicadas, Kids & Bobwhites

It’s summer, at least for the kids who are already out of school. Earlier this week I was transporting my daughter, niece and nephew to various summer day camps before work. TheyPhoto of the head of a 17-Year Locust range in age from 8 to 13 and it’s always interesting to spend 20 minutes on the road with them. Topics of conversation vary from American Girl dolls, to playing tight end on the football team. Since they all know I am a biologist, occasionally a subject even “old Daddy” knows something about comes up.

Here in central Virginia we have been in the midst of a “hatch” of Brood 2 of the 17-year cicadas. For the uninitiated, it’s quite a spectacle. All you need to do is type the number 17 into your Internet search engine now and it will immediately go to “17-year cicadas.” In a nutshell, they are not in the locust family, as they sometimes are mistakenly identified. They are in a different order – Homoptera, as opposed to the Orthoptera order for locusts (grasshopper-like).

There are 3 sub-species that hatch (emerge is a better term) on a 17-year cycle, and 4 sub-species that emerge on a 13-year cycle. But by the number, far more broods of 17-year cicadas are extant than are 13-year. Once the soil temperature in an area hits 63 degrees they begin to emerge from their underground burrows of 17 years. While they are mostly harmless, their size and sheer number can make them the dominant “wildlife” where they occur. To a small kid they can be terrifying. And their fire red eyes, and black and yellow striped torsos might even scare a few adults (especially when mowing the yard and rounding a corner to have one fly right into your face).

Of course their primary purpose is reproduction. They mate; lay some eggs in the tip of a tree branch, often an oak, then soon die. After a few weeks the rice sized larvae drop to the ground, burrow in and begin their long development up to a foot underground.

To a biologist they are another fascinating example of the vast diversity on our planet, not only of species, but in strategies for survival. The subject came up on our ride in to town. “Uncle Marc, why do these bugs only come out every 17 years? And how do they live in the ground for that long? What do they eat down there?” And on and on.

I can usually answer some, but not all, of their questions. When I get stumped I usually turn the table on them: “Hey, tell me how old you will be when these bugs come out again.” Of course this causes some silence, then a bit of laughter, because most kids have not thought of themselves 17 years older.

“I’ll be 30!” exclaimed Wyatt “Man, that’s old!” (No slack for his 50-year-old uncle).

“I’ll be…twenttttyyyyyyy fiiiiiivvve,!” my daughter said. This, of course, led to more giggling and speculation on many things. “Yep” I said, “Last time these things came out, I had not even met your mother and none of you were even born. And Paw Paw was only 64 years old.” The truck fell silent a while and I suspect even kids as young as these stopped to think about time … for a brief few seconds.

I pondered on it all day. I asked myself “I wonder where we’ll be with quail the next time these things emerge?” Do we have the stomach for the long haul? Or will we throw in the towel? I also had a more somber thought, “I think I’ll make at least one more cycle…hopefully two, but there are no guarantees on anything.”

To see these neat critters two more times I’d have to make it to 84. It made me wonder, too, “what if quail had a similar strategy? They’d burrow in the ground as chicks and emerge say 40 or 50 years after going under?” Would they even recognize the place? For all those people who tell me “Heck, we had quail and ain’t nothing changed around here, so where they’d go?” Well, try thinking about it like a quail that’d been underground for 50 years.

It also made me think of how short a time period 17 years really is. How much can happen over even that short span – good and bad, though. It really made feel like time is short and rather than throwing in the towel we better step it up even more – not just for quail, but in every aspect of our lives.

“Carpe diem (whispered), caaaarrrrrpeee diem lads…seize the day! Seize the day! We’ll all be food for worms someday soon, boys!” That’s Robin Williams’ character’s classic line in one of my favorite movies “Dead Poets Society.” This line has always hung like an apparition in the back of my mind.

How many cicada life cycles do have you left in your time here? And what will you do with them? And it also made me think of my dog Shell for whom this BLOG is named – she was 17 years and 3 days old when she died 2 years ago last Sunday. You can live a lot of life in 17 years. – June 10, 2013

Marc Puckett

Photo by Meghan Marchetti, VDWR

Marc Puckett is a Small Game Project Leader with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (VDWR).

Marc has worked with VDWR for 25+ years. He currently serves as the small game project co-leader. He was involved in several quail studies, including for his master’s degree at NCSU. He served his country for four years in the US Army’s Airborne Infantry. Marc resides with his family on a farm in central Virginia.