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17 Noisy Facts About 17-Year Cicadas

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This summer, prepare for the return of Brood V.

No, that’s not the title of a B horror flick, but it does involve an army of insects rising from the earth Night of the Living Dead–style. Seventeen-year cicadas spend over 99 percent of their lives underground, only to crawl out by the billions on a warm spring night in their 17th year. Then, after dedicating a few weeks to repopulating the brood, their bodies fall back to the ground they emerged from.

Different cicada broods resurface on different years. Brood V was last seen in Ohio, West Virginia, and surrounding states in 1999, and now the offspring of that last batch are finally ready to emerge. Whether they’ll be in your neighborhood or not, these are 17 facts about the periodical bugs worth knowing.

1. THEY’RE ACTIVE THEIR WHOLE LIVES.

Just because we can’t see (or hear) cicadas when they’re a few feet under doesn’t mean they aren’t keeping busy. “They’re not hibernating ... they’re just slow-growing,” Louis Sorkin, an entomologist with the American Museum of Natural History, tells mental_floss. According to Sorkin, 17-year cicadas live underground as immature nymphs before reaching full adulthood above the surface. And because they’re still too young to procreate, one major activity occupies their time: eating.

2. THEIR DIET MAY EXPLAIN THEIR LONG LIFECYCLE.

A cicada nymph’s meal of choice is xylem, a type of sap they slurp from tree roots. The fluid is more than 90 percent water and very poor in nutrients. Some cicada experts believe that the insect’s lousy diet may be one of the reasons behind its drawn-out maturation process.

3. THEY USE TREES TO KEEP TRACK OF TIME.

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The cicada’s super-accurate timekeeping skills have been puzzling scientists for centuries. According to one paper published in 2000, they may be using more than just their biological clocks to count down the years. For the study, researchers transplanted 15-year-old 17-year cicada nymphs beneath a tree that had been manipulated to blossom twice in one season. After feeding on its roots, the insects emerged one year early. This suggests that cicadas use the influx of sugars and proteins from a blossoming tree’s roots to mark the passage of time underground.

4. MATH HELPS THEM AVOID PREDATORS.

Seventeen-year cicadas aren’t the only members of the periodical cicada genus. They share the title with 13-year cicadas, who, as their name suggests, live a similar lifecycle except it ends four years earlier. Thirteen and 17 may seem like arbitrary amounts of time to stay buried in the dirt, but the numbers share a mathematical property that may help keep the insects alive. Both 13 and 17 are decently large prime numbers, which means they aren’t divisible by any number smaller than themselves. This makes it next to impossible for predators to adapt to the cicadas’s emergences. Stephen Jay Gould wrote in his 1977 book Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History, “Consider a predator with a cycle of five years; if cicadas emerged every 15 years, each bloom would be hit by the predator. By cycling at a large prime number, cicadas minimize the number of coincidences.” That’s an impressive math trick for an arthropod.

5. THEY EVOLVED DURING THE LAST ICE AGE.

The prime number trick is just one of the reasons some cicadas live to be 17. Louis Sorkin tells us their long lifespan is likely a leftover adaptation from the last ice age. Periodical cicadas are believed to have evolved during the Pleistocene Epoch at a time when North America’s climate was fairly unpredictable. By staying underground for as long as possible, cicadas had a greater chance of avoiding a cold and deadly summer when it was finally time to come up.

6. THEY’RE TRIGGERED BY TEMPERATURE.

Chace Nelson, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When it’s their year to emerge, 17-year cicadas wait until the soil 8 inches beneath the surface warms up to around 64 degrees. This specific temperature point is their signal to tunnel out of the earth and up the nearest vertical surface they can find, whether it’s a tree, fence post, or screen door. According to Sorkin, they’ll even climb up the leg of a person standing nearby.

7. THERE ARE 12 DIFFERENT BROODS.

Not every 17-year cicada emerges at the same time (if they did, the eastern half of the country couldn’t be blamed for taking a prolonged vacation every 17 summers). The insects are grouped into 12 distinct broods spanning from New York to Oklahoma (along with three broods of 13-year). When a brood procreates, their offspring are the ones who carry on that same brood 17 years later. Entomologist C.L. Marlatt was the first person to assign Roman numerals to the periodical cicadas in the late 19th century. Since then, a handful of the original broods have gone extinct.

8. THEY ARRIVE IN LARGE NUMBERS.

A single brood can contain billions of cicadas. When Brood V emerges this spring, their populations will be as dense as 1.5 million insects per square acre in some parts of the region. Simultaneously emerging in such great numbers is a survival strategy known as predator satiation. “[Predators] get completely full and engorge themselves,” Sorkin says. “They can’t catch everything, so you’ll have lots of [cicadas] doing fine and progressing to the next stage of their lives.” This ends up working out for cicadas as well as for the birds, rodents, and reptiles that get a surprise feast whenever they show up.

9. THEY’RE A TREAT FOR HUMANS, TOO.

Humans have a long history of dining on cicadas. Before European colonists arrived, indigenous North Americans enjoyed roasting them like peanuts. Today the bugs have become something of an unlikely food trend. Not only do they fit into the movement to utilize insects as a protein source, but they’re also gluten-free, low in carbs, and hyper-seasonal. When one Missouri ice cream shop introduced a batch of cicada-flavored ice cream in 2011, it sold out before hitting the display case. During the most recent summer of Brood II one chef served cicadas at his James Beard-nominated sushi restaurant in Connecticut. If you can’t find cicadas on the menu of your favorite local spot, catching them and cooking them at home is easy enough to do. Sorkin recommends grinding them up to make a flour, or even sautéing the critters with garlic and oil and eating them whole.

But if you want to put cicada on the menu, there are a couple of things to consider. Experts recommend that those with a shellfish allergy avoid the bugs, as should anyone who’s concerned about mercury in their diet: In 2004, researchers found cicadas could contain as much mercury as certain fish.

10. THEY LEAVE A LOT OF EXOSKELETONS BEHIND.

Before they can become adults, cicadas must get to a high-up spot to shed their immature skin. From the old exoskeleton a soft, new body unfurls, leaving behind the perfect shell of its nymphal self. Even though they’re harmless, the cicada skins can prove to be a nuisance for some. News stories from Brood II’s 1996 emergence reported shells piling up so high in some spots that people were using snow shovels to clear their driveways.

11. THEY’RE NOT LOCUSTS. 

While it’s true that 17-year cicadas do emerge in plague-like proportions, that doesn’t make them locusts. Sorkin says this misnomer was likely spread by European colonists who knew the bugs from the Bible. In reality, locusts are a type of grasshopper, and they tend to be much more destructive than relatively harmless cicadas.

12. THEIR SONGS CAN REACH 100 DECIBELS.

A cicada above ground has one job to do: make baby cicadas. To accomplish this task, an adult male will spend his last four to six weeks of life in furious song. There are three different species of 17-year cicadas and each one has a distinct mating call. The sounds are sometimes reminiscent of chirps, rattles, or high-pitched screams, and when males gather in trees to form a chorus, the noise can exceed 100 decibels. That’s about as loud as a car stereo playing at max volume. The song can be heard by females up to a mile away, and if she likes what she hears, she responds by flicking her wings.

13. THEY’RE ATTRACTED TO POWER TOOLS.

The deafening roar of a chorus of cicadas is often compared to the sound of heavy duty power equipment. The noises are so similar that confused females have been known to swarm around people using lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and other loud tools.

14. THEY LAY THEIR EGGS IN TREE BRANCHES.

After the female cicada has mated, it’s time to lay her eggs. She uses a structure on her rear called an ovipositer to slice Y-shaped gashes on the tips of tree branches. Females can lay up to several dozen eggs in a single branch and as many as 400 eggs spread out over 40 to 50 sites. After incubating for several weeks, the newly-hatched cicada nymphs fall to the earth, where they will spend their next 17 years of life.

15. THEY’RE ONE OF THE OLDEST INSECTS.

With a lifespan of 17 years, cicadas are among the longest-living insects on earth. But queen termites have them beat: A colony's queen can live as long as 50 years.

16. THEY HAVE FIVE EYES.

Chrissy Wainwright, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

An adult cicada is easily identified by the opaque pair of compound, usually crimson, eyes bubbling out from the sides of its head. But this isn’t the only set of eyes the creature owns. It also possesses a cluster of three smaller eyes hiding in plain sight on the top of its forehead. These eyes are called ocelli and are much simpler than its more prominent pair.

17. EVERY 221 YEARS, 13-YEAR AND 17-YEAR CICADAS CO-EMERGE.

The cycles of 17-year and 13-year cicada broods in the same region rarely coincide, which may be an evolutionary tactic to keep them from interbreeding. But you can mark your calendars now: the next co-emergence event is set to take place in Missouri in 2219.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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