“When they said it was locusts, I thought about the volcanoes and hurricanes and of course the tornado,” Garrett said. “I thought okay, is the world really coming to an end?”
The incessant noise, described by some as a constant hum or drone, which has plagued Calhoun County over the last two weeks is from the return of 13-year periodical cicadas. Calhoun County Extension Coordinator David West said people have been calling about the sounds around their houses and providing examples of the exoskeletons of the bugs found in back yards throughout the county.
“It’s just that time,” West said. “Three or four years ago the cicadas on a 17-year cycle were out, so it seems like every few years we get them because they have overlapping cycles.”
Cicadas, sometimes colloquially misidentified as locusts, are insects that spend most of their lives buried in the ground. The insects are commonly identified by their transparent wings. The most common types of North American cicadas will emerge in 13-year or 17-year cycles when they’ll dig their way out of the ground, shed their exoskeleton and lay their eggs in trees and repeat the cycle all over again.
They also make a lot of noise.
Alabama Cooperative Extension System Regional Agent Shane Harris said the particular brood of 13-year cycle cicadas tends to be smaller in size than one or two-year cicadas, commonly called “July flies” in Alabama, but are much louder.
“The 13-year cicadas all sing together,” Harris said. “The other ones don’t tend to sing in a chorus.”
The males make most of the noise, attracting female mates who eventually lay eggs in trees before the nymphs fall and bury themselves in the ground and lay dormant for another 13-year cycle. The sound male cicadas produce has been recorded at over 100 decibels, louder than a lawn mower and approaching the levels of a chain saw.
While the noise may sound Biblical in proportions, fears of extensive damage to crops and land are unfounded, West said.
“Most of the damage they cause is when they bury their eggs and they’ll slit the bark,” West said. “It’s just a little damage.”
Cicadas, which don’t bite or sting, pose even less of a threat to humans during their mating cycle.
“They have absolutely no interest in us,” Harris said.
While they may not be harmful to the community, it doesn’t make them any less of a nuisance.
“They’re very loud and they’re not very attractive to look at,” West said. “They’re just really ugly.”
Garrett said she first heard the sounds last week when she returned to her home in Ohatchee after the tornado.
“I thought it was an alarm and I told my neighbors someone needs to turn that alarm off,” Garrett said. “I thought maybe it was the cleanup crew, maybe a saw.”
Ohatchee resident Willie Thomas said he thought the “low pitched siren” noise he heard in his neighborhood a few days after the April 27 tornado was from the crews in the area fixing power lines.
“They make all kinds of noise and cause a racket flying through the air,” Thomas said. “They’ll hit the side of your car when you’re driving. They really are a nuisance.”
Thomas, who’s lived in Ohatchee all his life, said he remembers hearing the cicadas in the area before, recalling the last time about ten years ago.
“They really can be nerve-wracking to listen to them,” Thomas said. “Then, you get used to them.”
Garrett said she can’t even back out of her driveway without hearing the crunching of the insects littering her backyard.
“I used to like to sit outside, but I don’t really like to sit out there anymore,” Garrett said.
Garrett said the sound has been constant in the last two weeks and seems to only be getting louder, but according to West the noise will peak in different areas at different times depending on when the cicadas emerge. After breeding, typically a process lasting four to six weeks, the cicadas die and the noise goes along with it — at least for another 13 years.
Star staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3548