By Josie Jack

The cicadas have arrived.
Credit: Josie Jack

This spring brought us Brood X, the billions of periodical cicadas that haven’t seen the light of day for 17 years. Whereas annual cicadas appear each summer throughout the world, periodical cicadas are native to the Eastern U.S., only, and emerge cyclically on a 13- or 17-year schedule, depending on the brood.

University of Maryland (UMD) graduate students and professors studying periodical cicadas launched a project to educate the general public about this brood. Calling themselves the Cicada Crew, the team is offering presentations and has a website (cicadacrewumd.weebly.com). 

Brood X is one of 15 broods of periodical cicadas, each with its own distinct geographical location. This brood is primarily found in most of Maryland (except the Eastern Shore), D.C. and Northern Virginia.

The brood’s emergence is so infrequent, localized and spectacular that the BBC is filming these cicadas, right here in College Park, for a documentary about American flora and fauna. One of the filming locations is near the home of Dr. Karin Burghardt, who is an assistant professor of entomology at UMD.

Burghardt said that College Park’s unusually cool and dry weather this May delayed the cicadas’ emergence. Soil temperature must reach 64 degrees before cicadas can emerge, and rain also serves as a prompt. 

Dr. Mike Raupp, professor emeritus of entomology at UMD and a member of the Cicada Crew, said that the cicadas will likely be emerging through June. Once they complete their life cycle, the ground will be littered with their larvae casings and bodies.

Raupp noted that having millions of dead cicadas has an upside.

“They give back to every other creature,” he said. “They’re going to fertilize those trees. Plants … are going to get a nutrient input.”

 “There’s evidence that they could be doing good things for people’s gardens as well,” Burghardt added.

However, the thin bark of immature trees can be harmed when female cicadas deposit their eggs. According to the Cicada Crew website, female cicadas lay 400 to 600 eggs after mating.

Nymphs hatch, drop out of the trees and burrow underground, where they suck sap from tree roots and mature for 13 or 17 years.

In their emergence year, the cicadas dig out of the soil, grow wings, and climb trees to mate and repeat the cycle.

That there are billions, and possibly upwards of a trillion cicadas, in Brood X serves a specific purpose; it is a survival strategy called predator satiation.Their emergence causes a food frenzy, with snakes, birds, squirrels, rodents, and other insects (even wasps) going to town. Many dogs love them, and even people chow down. But what’s many millions down the gullet if there are many millions more? The species survives.

Raupp explained why periodical cicadas are found only in the Eastern United States, noting, “There are only panda bears in Asia. There are only giraffes in Africa. And that’s why there are only periodical cicadas … in the Eastern United States. It’s simply where they evolved.”

While some of us may not be thrilled by the thought of millions of big insects, even harmless ones, invading our spaces, Raupp said he personally gets most excited by making others excited about them. 

“There’s gonna be romance, courtship, wicked sex; it’s gonna be birth, death” he said. “It’s gonna be better than watching an episode of ‘Game of Thrones,’ and you can do it in your backyard!”

Burghardt agrees, adding her scientist’s perspective to the experience: “It’s just an amazing thing when we see a portion of life that has been hidden from us. It’s an emblem of all the things that we’re not paying attention to around us.”

If you’re just not keen about this whole thing, though, both Burghardt and Raupp suggest you simply leave town. You could head to the Eastern Shore or simply flee the Eastern U.S. entirely.

And for adventurous folks who are embracing the emergence, cicadas are edible!

“We had like a soft-shelled cicada right off the tree … tastes kind of like bok choy,” said Damien Nunez, a member of the Cicada Crew.

No matter one’s outlook, Brood X has arrived and is making its mark. In a way, their timing is almost symbolic.

“We’ve just come out of COVID. There’s an interesting parallel,” Raupp noted. “They’re taking their soil mask off; we’re taking our COVID mask off.”