Random Facts About … Brood X Cicadas Emerging After 17 Years

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By David Martin —

When we looked into our internet tubes last week, we saw beady red eyes staring back at us. Did these belong to some of the trillions of Brood X cicadas emerging this month after 17 years underground? No. These bloodshot eyes belonged to friends and relatives living
through this Brood X emergence.

Scientists track 12 broods of 17-year cicadas and three broods of 13-year cicadas, and all these broods are distributed widely across a variety of eastern states. Brood X, the largest of the 17-year-locust broods, is emerging now in 15 eastern states as far west as Illinois but with the concentration around Washington, D.C. — in fact, all around us, to the north and west. Curiously, none of the Brood X populations is established on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, although we have annual cicadas, of course. Don’t be surprised if your friends, relatives, and people you haven’t seen since high school — all of them beady-eyed from
lack of sleep — contact you this summer hoping for an invitation away from their cicada-infested neighborhoods for some peace and quiet on the cicada-free Shore.

Cicadas start life as a small white antlike bug emerging from an egg its mother has deposited in a slit she has made in a tree limb. This infant cicada falls to the ground and digs in, living on roots of the tree in which it was born. If it’s a 17-year cicada, the bug will spend the next 17 years burrowing among those tree roots, eating and waiting but not hibernating. When the time is right and the soil temperature hits 64 degrees Fahrenheit, the cicada — now a nymph — will dig a tunnel out of the dirt and find the nearest vertical
surface to climb. After its exoskeleton is discarded, an adult body forms, wings included, and the adult cicada is ready to sing (if it’s a male), mate, and lay eggs (if it’s a female). From digging out of the dirt to mating and laying eggs and then dying takes from four to six weeks, but with the cicadas emerging at different times, the entire cicada experience this summer can last several months.

People want to escape a massive periodic cicada emergence like Brood X for two reasons, and both of those reasons are related to the cicada’s evolutionary strategy for survival. The first reason is the racket they make. The males in the three different species of cicadas
within Brood X sing different songs. The females distinguish among those songs,
find the right species of male, fly to the one singing the loudest, and mate. With
over a million cicadas per acre of trees trying to out-sing one another for their
once-in-a-lifetime chance to mate, the screeching volume can be unsettling with decibels reaching that of a dirt bike or gasoline lawnmower — and just as unpleasant to human ears. It’s music, of course, to the female cicada, which can hear a single male from a mile away. If you’ve ever lived through a periodic cicada emergence, you know: the sound
they make can drive you crazy. It might go on night and day at different volumes and intensities. And, speaking of lawnmowers, if you try cutting your grass with a gas mower, you might find yourself swarmed by thousands of amorous female cicadas who think your mower’s “singing” is quite sexy.

But don’t worry about being harmed by cicadas. They don’t bite or sting. They aren’t poisonous. Almost everything eats them and cicadas take no precautions against predators. Their protection is in their numbers. And that’s the second reason that makes living with a Brood X emergence such a nuisance. If you reside in an affected area and have large
deciduous trees in your neighborhood, you will be dealing with millions of these thumb-size bugs that look like gargoyles with wings. Harmless, yes — but they will be everywhere. You’ll have to sweep up their discarded exoskeletons and bodies. They won’t eat your plants but they might cover every available inch of them. Your dogs will get sick from eating them. Not because the bugs are poisonous but because your dogs will overeat
on this endless smorgasbord of doggie treats that don’t try to escape.

Your nearby friends and relatives who are living through a Brood X emergence
have three options. One, be philosophical. Imagine the life of the periodic cicada.
Spending 17 years underground, sucking tree root sap, emerging for one brief
month of singing and sex, and then dying. Imagine their offspring and what kind of world they will emerge to in 2038. Will the world still be here for them in
17 years as it has for the 5 million years these cicadas have been around? Two, your friends and relatives can take revenge by eating the cicadas. Apparently, they taste like shrimp to which the cicada is related. Or, three, y’all come to the Eastern Shore! We have skeeters and noseeums but we are a Brood X-free zone.

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