Trillions of Brood X cicadas are about to emerge.
After 17 years underground, ‘one of the most bizarre life cycles of any species on the planet’ concludes.
Michael Raupp and Paula Shrewsbury discover their quarry when sifting through a shovel full of soil in a suburban backyard: a cicada nymph.
And then another. And another. And four more.
Entomologists at the University of Maryland discover at least seven cicadas in around a third of a square foot of soil — a figure just short of a million per acre. A neighboring yard recorded a rate of about 1.5 million.
And much more is afoot. According to scientists, trillions of the red-eyed black bugs are on their way.
After 17 years underground, the cicadas of Brood X (the X is the Roman numeral for 10) will emerge within days, if not weeks. There are several broods of seasonal cicadas that appear on predictable schedules throughout the year, but this is the largest and most visible. They’ll be in 15 states, from Indiana to Georgia to New York; they’re still pouring into Tennessee and North Carolina in large numbers.
When the entire brood arrives, backyards will resemble undulating waves, and the bug chorus can be heard over the sound of a lawnmower.
Cicadas will often emerge at dusk to avoid being eaten, squiggling out of holes in the earth. They’ll attempt to scale trees or any vertical structure, like Raupp and Shrewsbury. If they are airborne, they shed their skins and attempt to survive the precarious stage before becoming dinner for a variety of critters such as ants, birds, dogs, cats, and Raupp.
It’s one of nature’s strangest phenomena, involving sex, a race against death, evolution, and what often sounds like a poor science-fiction film soundtrack.
The story is reminiscent of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Certain individuals can be repulsed. Psychiatrists are contacting entomologists out of concern for their patients, according to Shrewsbury. However, scientists assert that the arrival of Brood X demonstrates that, amid pollution, climate change, and drastic biodiversity loss, nature is still in balance. And it’s quite the spectacle.
Raupp tells the story of the cicada’s life with the panache of a Hollywood blockbuster:
“You have a creature that lives a COVID-like life, isolated underground sucking on plant sap for 17 years, correct? By the 17th year, these teens would number in the billions, if not trillions. They’re going and try to outwit all on the planet that wants to eat them during this crucial span of the night when they’re just trying to mature, shed their skin, acquire wings, soar into the treetops, and escape their predators,” he says.
“Once in the treetops, it will be about romance.” Males are the only ones who sing. It’s going to be a big boy band up there as the males attempt to woo certain females, persuade that special someone that she should be the mother of his nymphs. He’ll perform and sing songs. If she approves, she will click her wings. They’re going to have some wild sex in the treetop, and then she’s going to move out to the smaller branches and lay her eggs. Then it’s over in a couple of weeks. They’re going to fall. They’re essentially going to fertilize the plants from which they spawned. Six weeks later, the tiny nymphs will fall 80 feet from the treetops, bounce twice, burrow into the dirt, and remain underground for an additional 17 years.”
“This is one of the most bizarre life cycles of any species on the world,” Raupp says.
America is the only continent with periodic cicadas that remain underground for 13 or 17 years, according to University of Connecticut entomologist John Cooley.
Early emergence as a result of climate change.
The bugs become abundant only when the ground temperature exceeds 18 degrees Celsius. This has occurred earlier in recent years as a result of climate change, according to entomologist Gene Kritsky. Prior to 1950, they were released at the end of May; now, they are released weeks sooner.
Though some early bugs have been observed in Maryland and Ohio, soil temperatures have remained around 15 or 16 degrees Celsius. As a result, Raupp and other scientists assume the great emergence is only days away — possibly a week or two.
Cicadas that emerge prematurely do not survive. Predators easily consume them. Cicadas developed a critical survival strategy: overwhelming numbers. There are just too many of them to be consumed all at once, so some can live and reproduce, Raupp explains.
This is not a military operation. The cicadas have been here the whole time, silently feeding on tree roots underground, not sleeping but simply moving slowly and waiting for their body clocks to signal them to emerge and breed. They have existed in America for millions of years, far longer than humans.
There is a lot of noise, followed by a lot of dead bugs.
When they emerge, it becomes extremely noisy — 105 decibels loud, Cooley describes it as “a singles bar gone terribly, horribly wrong.” Cicadas are classified into three distinct species, each with its own mating song.
They are not locusts, and the only plants they wreak havoc on are young trees that can be netting. Trees usually do better the year after a large batch of cicadas, Kritsky says, since the dead bugs behave as fertilizer.
People are always afraid of the wrong insects, according to May Berenbaum, an entomologist at the University of Illinois. The mosquito is responsible for more human deaths than any other species due to malaria and other diseases. Nonetheless, some people fear the arrival of the cicada, she explained.
“I believe it is due to their inconvenient nature. Additionally, when they die in large numbers, they stink,” Berenbaum says. “They have a profound effect on our sense of order.”
Others, on the other hand, enjoy cicadas and even munch on them using recipes from a University of Maryland cookbook. And for scientists like Cooley, their life cycle is truly beautiful.
“This is a feel-good story for you, gentlemen. It really is, and in a year, we will need additional funds,” he says. “When they emerge, it’s a perfect indicator of healthy forests. All is as it should be.”