Shelby County is getting the shaft once again. But this time, that could be a good thing.
Residents of Middle and East Tennessee will spend the summer talking over the loud, high-pitched drones of the periodical cicada, an insect that emerges to mate every 13 and 17 years. But the 13-year plague expected to hit most of the South this summer won't affect West Tennessee.
Last seen in the south in 1998, the group of cicadas known as Brood XIX will appear in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, parts of Tennessee, and several other states.
"The broods are regional in nature and don't overlap much at all," said John Cooley, a cicada researcher who maintains the site Magicicada.org. "The boundaries between broods are fairly sharp." In other words, it's not unusual for a brood of cicadas in Memphis to be within a short driving distance of another brood.
But Memphis won't always be free of the cicada's loud shrills. Shelby County is scheduled to experience Brood XXIII, the 17-year emergence of the insect, in 2015.
Frank Hale, an entomology and plant pathology professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, was introduced to the periodical cicada in 1998 after receiving calls from frantic parents fearing the insect's reemergence.
"The reason they were worried was that they had a son or daughter who was going to get married in May or early June and the wedding was planned to be outdoors," Hale said. "They wanted to know if the cicadas would be out at the time in their particular location."
Adult cicadas are commonly misidentified with locusts due to their striking resemblance, but the two belong to different insect orders.
The periodical cicada ranges from 1 to 1 1/2 inches long with a black body, reddish-orange legs, wide red eyes, and translucent wings. It typically lives for four to five weeks, but that can be cut short due to predators like birds and preying mantises.
Aside from the periodical cicada, there are also annual cicadas, known as "dog day cicadas," that emerge every summer. Cooley said during full 13-year emergences, there are about one million adult periodical cicadas per acre of land.
A few days after emerging, male cicadas start singing a high-pitched, shrill call to attract females. Though some may consider that mating call annoying, Hale said it's one of the things that makes the cicada so amazing.
"They have the longest life cycle. They emerge in huge numbers, and the males call the females in such a noisy manner," Hale said. "The coolest thing is watching them emerge out of their nymphal shell."