En español | As if we haven't had enough of plagues, this spring brings the 17-year Brood X, a massive sleeper cell of cicadas soon to emerge from their underground lairs. Billions — yes, billions — of the bugs will scratch their way to earth's surface to screech their mating calls, copulate and lay eggs throughout much of the Eastern half of the U.S. Their appearance is expected sometime in May — as soon as the ground gets above 64 degrees — and lasts for four to six weeks.
Brood X, which last appeared in 2004, consists of large patches of insects in some 15 states in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest and Washington, D.C., including parts of New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and as far south as Georgia. These are periodical cicadas, which arise around the country every 13 or 17 years, depending on their brood — categorized with numbers (X stands for 10) based on their life cycles and geographic regions.
Annual cicadas are different: Greenish colored, they emerge in much smaller numbers every year from June to September, and are more lively. Periodical cicadas, meanwhile, are black, about 1 to 2 inches long, with horror-film-ready red-orange eyes, and sluggish after their epic naps.
Their emergence is one of nature's wildest shows, and those in its midst tend to find it either endlessly fascinating or positively horrifying.
What to expect during a periodical cicada emergence
Cicadas have been around for 250 million years, through all parts of the world, succeeding with their sole goal: Procreation — something that's essentially true of all creatures, but very pointedly so for these single-minded bugs. The ritual begins with the cicada nymphs crawling from the ground; they “know” to emerge by counting the annual cycles of the vegetation that they feed upon underground, says John Cooley, a cicada expert and professor in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department at University of Connecticut.
They immediately climb the nearest vertical structure, usually a tree, where they shed their exoskeleton. That's when their wings start to plump up and their soft, exposed body begins to harden.
Males sing their shrill but seductive (if you're a female cicada) song, buggy sex occurs, and females then lay their eggs in small holes bored into twigs.
These large emergences provide an epic feast for squirrels, birds and other creatures, including dogs and cats. They're also a novelty ingredient for more than a few humans, who've compared their flavor to shrimp.
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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Cicadas?
You can't. But there are a couple of things to keep in mind:
They can be a danger to young trees
Female egg-laying can cause some damage, says Cooley, which “isn't really an issue for native hardwood trees (these cicadas have been part of our forests for millions of years), but the damage can affect orchards and tree nurseries.” He suggests wrapping delicate trees in avian netting to encourage the females to go elsewhere. “We do not suggest using pesticides,” Cooley adds, “because the amounts needed would be hazardous, and the ecological consequences unknowable."
They make for a low-fat, high-protein meal
While many compare their flavor to shrimp, CicadaSafari.org says it's more like “cold canned asparagus.” Bon Appetit reports that “they recall the taste and texture of soft-shell crab, but with subtle overtones of boiled peanuts.” If you're interested in trying them, the magazine's 2013 story includes a recipe for Charleston Cheese Grits and Blackened Cicadas made with 30–40 cicadas (remove their heads, legs and wings first). And celeb chef Andrew Zimmern's site offers a recipe for Crispy Wok-Tossed Cicadas.
For more information on cicadas, check out:
• Cicadas.uconn.edu. Maintained by University of Connecticut entomologist John Cooley, this informative site includes a dynamic map of Brood X's range.
• CicadaSafari.org. A site that was created by cicada expert Gene Kritsky, author of Periodical Cicadas: The Brood X Edition. Download the Cicada Safari app to submit photos of cicadas in your area and help scientists map the emergence of Brood X.
The Brood Xers that aren't eaten up by ravenous animals will die naturally, leaving their offspring to eventually fall to earth and burrow in, feeding on tree roots until 2038.
That's when we will again all be Googling (if there's still a Google) “what are cicadas Brood X."
Love ‘em or hate ‘em?
A periodical cicada season is not for the faint of heart. There can be more than a million cicadas per acre in some areas, which means their quivering — then dead — bodies end up covering a vast expanse of lawns, trees and sidewalks (where they crunch when you walk, cicada haters like to point out). And their shrill mating calls are deafening, often compared to a jackhammer or lawnmower on decibel level.
Also? They might pee on your head: “They do pass fluids through their bodies,” Cooley affirms. “This phenomenon is called ‘cicada rain.'"
Nonetheless, some await their emergence with excitement, including Eleanor Oliver, 83, a Washington, D.C., resident who says, “This will be my third or fourth experience with these marvelous creatures.” She finds poetry in their regular emergence to “sing their love songs.”
The ancient Greeks poets also revered the bug, according to AtlasObscura.com, which quotes some of the gushing classical odes to cicadas ("Esteemed you are by every human/ As the summer's sweet-voiced prophet/ Muses love you, and Apollo too/ Who's gifted you with high pitched song").
Well, maybe not every human...
There are countless others who look forward to Brood X's emergence like a root canal, including Priscilla Vazquez, 74, who remembers with horror watching a cicada crawling out of a man's shirt pocket while she was waiting for a Metro train back in 2004. “I wore a net over my hat every day to keep them away from my face.” She adds that she plans to leave her Washington, D.C., home to stay with her sister in Florida for the duration because, she says, “I've been told they don't go that far south.”
Her neighbor Linda Schwartz, 65, claims that she's still “haunted” by the last emergence and plans to stay indoors, possibly for the entire five weeks of Brood X's show this spring. “The first time one of them falls on me from the trees, you're going to hear my scream across the city,” she says. “It's just disgusting."
Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.