As we begin to emerge from the horrific COVID-19 pandemic, also set to emerge soon are some trillions of periodic cicadas, offspring of the last invasion of the nasty-looking bugs in 2004.
States along the East Coast are preparing for an event nearly two decades in the making, “a rare and spectacular natural phenomenon,” Scientific America calls it. “As spring sets in and the soil warms, the ground will erupt as billions of cicadas burst from the earth. Known as Brood X, this massive swarm has been biding its time underground for the last 17 years.”
Americans across 15 states, from North Carolina to Indiana to New Jersey, will soon see them, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) says. “And many parks in the mid-Atlantic region, including Gettysburg National Military Park, Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park and sections of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, will be right in the thick of it all.”
Millions of us will not be happy to see the two-inch bugs invade the very air we breathe. But others are looking forward to it.
“We’re fortunate to be a part of the area where Brood X emerges,” Leslie Frattaroli, natural resources program manager for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, told Todd Christopher of the NPCA. “Natural events like this are a perfect showcase for the importance of natural resources in urban areas.”
Cicadas are harmless to humans and, recalling the last invasion 17 years ago, I’d say they make great snacks for dogs.
Cicadas will soon fill the air ‘with the cacophonous sound of male cicadas seeking willing female partners’
Brood X cicadas will soon fill the air “with the cacophonous sound of male cicadas seeking willing female partners.” They will definitely leave a mark on the landscapes where they appear, Christopher says. “The dime-sized holes caused by emerging nymphs allow air and water into the ground, and the carcasses of dead adults return nutrients to the soil. But there will be damage, too.”
The bugs’ behavior “has no long-lasting effect on mature trees but will cause the tips of their branches to wither, droop and drop,” he adds. “Saplings and recently transplanted trees are at greater risk and can best be protected by covering them in netting, as chemical insecticides cause significant harm to the ecosystem.”
So perhaps this spring is not the best time to plant new trees in your garden.
The female cicadas lay their eggs in the slender branches of deciduous trees by first sawing a slit with their ovipositors, tubular organs through which the females deposit their eggs. Then, they’ll die, “a swift and brutal conclusion to their exceptional lives,” Scientific America calls it.
When the eggs hatch the newborn bugs “will fall to the ground, burrow into the soil and find nutritious tree roots to feed on. There, they’ll begin their long wait in the dark” before bursting forth in another 17 years, or fewer if recent cicada activity is any judge.
Sometimes, members of a brood come out before their time. “Early emergences have been documented as far back as the late 19th century,” Gene Kritsky, a cicada expert at Mount St. Joseph University in Ohio, told Scientific America. “But there seem to have been a spree of these early events in recent years,” he added. “A small segment of Brood X emerged early in 2017. Thousands of cicadas were sighted in the Washington area that year, a full four years before they should have come out.”
According to the magazine, there are only 15 periodical broods in the world, all of them found exclusively in the eastern United States. Brood IX, another 17-year swarm, emerged last year across North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. Brood VIII came out the year before that.
There is nothing we can do to prevent the cicada invasion. All we can do is bide our time until these pesky bugs are gone, and we have 17 years – or maybe fewer – to see them again.