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What parents should know about cicadas

Don't worry — this 17-year phenomenon is noisy, but harmless!
/ Source: TODAY

They're back! Unlike Silly Bandz bracelets and Webkinz stuffed animals, which have stayed firmly planted in the early 2000s, cicadas are making their triumphant return this year for the first time since 2004.

What are cicadas?

Cicadas are red-eyed insects that spend much of their life underground, emerging every 13-17 years to mate and lay eggs. They are best known for the "screaming" sound they make, as well as the sheer volume with which they typically arrive.

The cicadas arriving this year are periodical cicadas called Brood X, which refers to the brood cycle ten, and is one of the most concentrated of the fifteen cicada broods that have been tracked in the eastern U.S.

Kris Carson, a high school science teacher in Central Dauphin School District in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, told TODAY Parents that cicadas are very interesting creatures.

"They're harmless and fun," Carson, who teaches 11th and 12th graders, said. "But can be the stuff nightmares are made of if one lands on you without warning."

Here's how to answer questions kids may have about this noisy 17-year phenomenon: —

What do cicadas look like?

Cicadas have black bodies with wings, six legs, and red eyes.

What do cicadas do?

When they emerge above ground, cicadas mate.

"Females saw twigs to deposit eggs once fertilized," Carson explained.

When the eggs hatch, the nymphs fall into the ground and burrow. In seventeen years, they will emerge again.

Where will we see cicadas?

In some states, cicadas have already arrived and will be located mostly on the eastern coast of the United States.

"The largest outcrops will be in central and southern Pennsylvania, eastern Tennessee, and Illinois and Indiana statewide," Carson said.

Why do cicadas make noise?

Cicadas make noise to mate, and the noise also deters birds.

"Their most noticeable behaviors are those to mate," Carson explained. "The typical hum is the male and a 'click' is a responding female if she is interested."

How long will the cicadas be here?

Periodical cicadas only live for around four weeks above ground.

"They will be around for one month to six weeks depending on seasonal weather," Carson explained.

Are cicadas dangerous?

Despite their noisy nature, cicadas are not dangerous to humans.

Do cicadas bite?

No, cicadas do not bite or sting.

"Unlike other insect blooms, they do not harm vegetation, but rather act to prune," Carson said, adding that when cicadas fall from trees and die, it helps plants. "Large populations decaying gives a nice boost of nitrogen for plant roots."

Are cicadas and locusts the same?

No, they are not.

"Cicadas are part of a super family in Hemiptera order and related to jumping bugs, not grass hoppers as are locusts," Carson said.

Even though cicadas are not dangerous to humans, some kids might worry about their impending arrival.

What can parents tell kids about the cicadas to ease their worries?

Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a NYC neuropsychologist and Columbia University faculty member, told TODAY that telling kids what to expect can help ease fear and the unknown.

"You can tell them to expect to hear a high pitched buzzing sound, the insects will only be around for a few weeks, and they may land on you if you're outside, but they are harmless," she said. "Tell your child to swipe them off of their body if they land on them."

Even though it's easy for an adult to recognize these concepts, Hafeez shared that kids may still be frightened by cicadas.

"We are not accustomed to the insects, and the insects are very noisy," she explained. "Cicadas are interested in eating sap from small branches of trees and laying their eggs in trees. They will not cause damage to people, their homes, or their pets."

For children who feel frightened, Hafeez suggested:

  • Educate your children about why they are so important to reduce their anxiety.
  • Tell your children to examine their thoughts and see if they are overblown.
  • Reminding kids that cicadas are harmless can be an effective way to reduce fear.