Help Scout The Coming Cicada Invasion

It’s that time again. Every 17 years, cicadas emerge to mate and assault our ear drums. This year, you can be part of an effort to track them as they come out of their holes, so we can warn others before it’s too late.


Magicicada have bright red eyes, black bodies, and large translucent wings with orange veins. They are scary looking. But they’re not harmful to humans, and they won’t eat the vegetables in your garden. They appear only rarely–every 13 or 17 years–and make a very loud sound when they do (the males form choruses in the trees to serenade the females). And, there’s tens of millions of them coming your way very soon.

The completed temperature monitor.

Brood II, which is native to the East Coast, has a lifecycle of 17 years. The “periodic” cicadas normally live underground, near trees. But this spring they’re scheduled to emerge into the bright light, to briefly find a mate, before dying off again sometime in July or August. We know they’re coming in the next few weeks–but not exactly when. Which is why WNYC wants citizen scientists to track the great unfurling.

WNYC’s Cicada Tracker project asks volunteers to build simple temperature detection units, and place them eight inches below the ground. When the soil reaches 64 degrees, according to previous years, the Magicicada will start appearing. WNYC wants people to send in readings from across the region, so it can follow the insects’ progress.

Your starting materials before the two hour assembly.

To build the sensor, all you need is $80, and a little patience. The components, including an Arduino board and a few leads, are available from Radio Shack, or online. And WNYC’s website includes easy-to-follow 29-step instructions. Apparently, it should take about two hours to assemble.

The project is led by John Keefe , from the station’s data team, who spoke about the possibilities of citizen science/journalism recently at SXSW. He told the Nieman Journalism Lab this week that WNYC is also interested in monitoring air quality and noise pollution in the city, and that the insect project is a test case. If so, the Magicicada’s impact could last beyond the summer.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.