Live underground for 17 years, climb out, sing, mate and then die. It all lasts maybe a week. Such is the life of a male periodical cicada.

As of Tuesday evening, the 1.5-inch-long, black, red-eyed bugs with orange tinted wings hadn’t yet made their mass emergence from underground. By Wednesday, they may be swarming by the thousands in your neighborhood.

Some scientists had the date pegged at May 22. The consensus is no later than June 1. It all depends on the weather and the area.

The Midwest is divided into different “broods,” which define a cycle by the last time the area’s periodical cicadas emerged. Oak Park and River Forest are part of Brood XIII, which is on a 17-year cycle. Other broods appear every 13 years.

These are not to be confused with annual cicadas, which are green and black, live on a 2- to 5-year cycle and sometimes appear every summer. They’re slightly larger and like to “sing” during the hottest days of summer, which is why some label them “dog-day” cicadas.

Periodic cicadas, meanwhile, spend 17 years buried, clinging to tree roots. The undeveloped “nymphs” develop through five stages. When the soil gets warm (about 65 degrees) the nymphs crawl out of little holes in the ground called “chimneys.”

At dawn, the cicadas will crawl up a vertical surface-trees or whatever is closest-latch on and crawl out of their shells through a slit in their back. They come out pale and soft, taking hours before their outer skin hardens and their wings expand.

A week later, the males sing, vibrating the membranes in their abdomens. Females are attracted by the tune, and mating follows. The guys die, but the ladies live for a few more weeks, planting around 500 eggs in slits they cut in tree branches and similar places.

The eggs hatch between six and 10 weeks later, fall to the ground and the teeny nymphs latch onto a tree root for 17 years before it all happens again.

But why?

Why so long underground? Trailside Museum naturalist Dan Spencer says it’s a bit of a mystery.

One theory he said, is cicadas are so slow and defenseless, any animal can eat them. Maybe cicadas feel “safety in numbers.” If millions emerge at the same time, there wouldn’t be enough predators to eat them all and, naturally, some cicadas will survive. The strategy is called “predator satiation.”

Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about plant damage, cicadas are harmless, there’s no biting, no stinging and no diseases. If they land on you, it’s purely coincidental. The only slight worry is if you have young trees or shrubs because the female egg slits could do enough damage to harm them. Covering those plants with a thin netting will suffice to curb the damage, experts say.

Brood XIII is believed to have the largest cicada emergence (about 133,000 per acre) in the country and maybe even the world, Spencer said.

No special prep

Greg Kramer, director of Public Works in River Forest, said the village won’t spray to control the population, nor will any other communities. Pesticides are ineffective. Keep ornamental ponds covered because large numbers of dead cicadas can deplete the oxygen. Also, the village advises keeping pool filters and skimmers clean of bodies to avoid clogging.

Mike Grandy, superintendent of buildings and grounds for the Park District of Oak Park, said, “It’s kind of like the wind. All you can do is know that it’s going to come your way and prepare as you will for it. It’s just like weather. It’s a natural force of nature. It’s going to happen, and it’s going to go away.”

You could try eating them

Ever had a cicada taco? How about soft shell cicadas, battered and deep fried? Supposedly, a pound of cicadas has more protein than a pound of beef.

Trailside Museum naturalist Dan Spencer suggested one possible coping mechanism: eating the bugs.

In some parts of the world, cicadas are considered a delicacy. Some people in the Chicago area actually look forward to this 17-year emergence for the culinary delight, Spencer alleges.

What exactly does a creepy red-eyed bug that’s as big as your thumb and as loud as a blender taste like?

When boiled, they’re said to taste like asparagus. Baked or fried, a nutty almond flavor tickles the taste buds.

Cicadas are said to be loosely related to lobster, crab and shrimp, and supposedly they can sometimes taste like the latter.

Spencer, who never tried them, said to get the best cicadas, it’s recommended you hunt them down right after they pop out of the shell. This way, they’re still soft and tender. The females are supposed to be full of fat and much meatier. The males don’t eat in their short lives, and their insides are hollow and devoid of meat.

All kinds of cicada concoctions have been created: battered and fried cicadas, cicada dumplings, chocolate-covered cicadas, cicadas sautéed with garlic and butter, cicada rhubarb pie (no, we’re not kidding). Some people skewer and roast them over a fire like marshmallows.

Join the discussion on social media!