Most periodical cicadas show up every 17 years
I had lived in the same house my entire life, so when I got married and moved 200 miles away to a completely different state, I was a little daunted.
But I was ready to brave life out of town, and Baltimore seemed nice enough when we got there. My husband had lived there for years while in yeshivah, so he gave me the grand tour, showing me where to buy groceries, how to find my way to shul, and how to get to the mall. Everything was fine.
But then, just a few weeks after Pesach, someone told me the cicadas were coming.
I literally had no clue what cicadas were. When I asked my husband, he told me that a bunch of bugs would be popping up soon for a couple of days and there was certainly nothing to worry about.
Practically overnight, Baltimore was invaded by millions and millions of horrific, brown grasshopper-like bugs with creepy red eyes. They covered every available surface. You couldn’t walk anywhere without crunching on them, and they made the most horrific noise for hours on end. When you looked out the window, it seemed as if the leaves on the trees had all inexplicably turned brown, until you realized that what you were seeing wasn’t foliage at all.
It was cicadas, a group known as Brood X, to be specific. They emerged from the ground by the millions after a 17-year slumber, taking over the entire town for about four to six weeks. With seemingly no sense of direction, they would fly right at you and were devilishly hard to shake off. Even now, 34 years later, I still get the chills just thinking about them.
Cicadas are insects with long clear wings, large eyes, stout bodies, and bulging eyes. They measure about an inch and a half long. There are more than 3,000 species of cicadas. There are some types of cicadas that appear each year — called annual cicadas. But periodical cicadas typically live underground for years before they emerge in the springtime to lay eggs, starting the cycle all over again.
Most periodical cicadas show up every 17 years (the others have a 13-year cycle). While they are often confused with locusts, cicadas are a completely different species. They don’t eat and destroy crops — they subsist on fluids that they suck from trees and shrubs.
According to the Baltimore Sun, the first historical reports of cicadas were recorded in 1633 by Plymouth County governor William Bradford, 13 years after the Mayflower docked in Massachusetts. The cicadas that are expected this spring belong to Brood X, known as the Great Eastern Brood, and are expected to swarm all over Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, DC.
For 17 years, cicadas live approximately eight to ten inches below ground level, sucking sap from tree and plant roots. Then the cicada nymphs emerge, burrowing straight up to the surface. After attaching themselves to a vertical surface — usually a bush or a tree — they shed their outer skins and emerge as full-grown adults with wings. (Cicadas will land on any vertical surface, including walls and even humans, mistaking them for trees.) Male cicadas sing loudly to attract the attention of their female counterparts. Unlike the sound of chirping crickets, cicada song can be as loud as 80 decibels or more, about the same as your average lawn mower. The females slice small slits into tree limbs where they lay their eggs, producing as many as 600 over a single season.
The adult cicadas eventually die out, leaving a carpet of crunchy, smelly corpses, and the newly hatched baby cicadas fall to the ground and burrow their way into the earth, where they patiently await their turn to come out in 17 more years.
Surviving Brood X
Having cicadas take over your neighborhood is not at all comfortable or convenient. Plans for biking, running, leisurely walks, and outdoor graduations, bar mitzvahs, and weddings can get complicated with cicadas around. Simple activities like going to the bus stop, heading to shul, or even playing outside after school become far less pleasant when cicadas are everywhere. But watching a 17-year cicada cycle unfold can be fascinating — if you aren’t freaked out by bugs.
Interestingly enough, the sheer magnitude of their numbers plays a key role in cicadas’ survival. Many household pets and wild animals are delighted to find themselves facing an all-you-can-eat buffet of crunchy snacks, but because they come out by the billions, there are still plenty of cicadas left over to continue their mission.
The cicadas are due to return in 2021, but it’s hard to predict exactly what the new cicada season will look like. Dr. Michael Raupp, an entomologist or bug expert at the University of Maryland, noted that cicada broods have been on the decline on Long Island for the past 200 years, and the fact that trees are being cut down and replaced by parking lots, housing developments, and shopping centers spells certain death to cicadas living underground in those locations.
But the number of cicadas expected to emerge this year is still being described unscientifically as “billions and billions,” making it important to know how to prepare for their visit. Small trees, whose young branches may not survive being slit by mommy cicadas preparing to lay their eggs, should be wrapped in mesh with holes smaller than a quarter of an inch. It also might not be the right time to plant new trees or bushes.
The Good News
There is some good news. No matter how many cicadas make their way out of the ground this year, it will likely pale by comparison to cicada season in the year 2115, which is the next time that 17-year and 13-year cicadas will emerge at the same time. And having lived through a pandemic and endless weeks of quarantine, there is no doubt that we can get through Brood X, as inconvenient as it may be. And finally, observing those creepy, crunchy cicadas can offer incredible lessons in science as we observe their life cycle, further emphasizing the importance of leaving them alone and letting them do their thing.
Not everyone sees cicadas as a problem. “The mass emergence of periodical cicadas is a phenomenon that is incredible to witness,” Judy Black, who works in the pest control industry, told Prevention magazine. “If you attempt to kill them, you are robbing future generations of witnessing these emergence events.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 861)
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