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The Brood X cicadas are emerging now

Green leaves from a prennial plant with a multitude of cicadas.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Art Berger in Exton, Pennsylvania, captured this photo of a multitude of emerged cicadas on May 20, 2021. He wrote: “They’re here!!!” Thank you, Art!

Citizen scientists are reporting the emergence of the Brood X cicadas happening right now. As of May 10, 2021, the Cicada Safari app shows thousands of reports from people spotting cicadas in their own yards. Some of the places seeing the most reports are around Washington, D.C.; Bethesda, Maryland; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Cincinnati, Ohio. Even places as far north and west as Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis have had sightings. If you live within these areas and haven’t seen or heard them yet, just wait.

Cicada with curved white wings hangs from shell.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | They’re here! Valerie Kutchman in Annapolis, Maryland, captured this photo of a cicada on May 17, 2021. She wrote: “A tiny cicada chandelier. #BroodX.” Thank you, Valerie!
Black bug with large wings and red eyes looking at you.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Pat Przonek in Murphy, NC, captured this photo of a cicada on May 11, 2021. Pat wrote: “Saw just one on the upper deck of my home. I saw about 10 shells down on the ground about 2 days ago …” Thank you, Pat!

Twitter is also buzzing with cicada sightings, with posts ranging from people announcing their cicada encounters to odder posts urging those with shellfish allergies not to eat them.

If you want to help track the emergence of the Brood X cicadas, download the free Cicada Safari app for iOS or Android, and then, when you see a cicada, snap a photo and submit it to have your cicada added to a live map.

If you’ve spotted a cicada, share a photo of it with us at EarthSky Community Photos.

White bug with big brown eyes and wings ready to expand coming out of a pink shell.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Valerie Kutchman in Annapolis, Maryland, captured this photo of a cicada on May 10, 2021. She wrote: “Cicada emerging from its shell. #BroodX.” Thank you, Valerie!

Over the next month or so, billions of cicadas will emerge in a dozen U.S. states, from New York west to Illinois and south into northern Georgia, including hot spots in Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. This group of cicadas, known as Brood X (as in the Roman numeral 10) is among the geographically largest of all 17-year periodical cicadas.

Periodical cicadas usually start to emerge in early- to mid-May when the soil temperature reaches 64 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius). In 2017, a few cicadas emerged as early as April 26, but large appearances began on May 16. The timing of their appearance varies by location, said West Virginia University biologist Matt Kasson. He told the New York Times earlier this month:

They are ready but waiting for the soil to be warm enough. The ideal soil temperature for cicadas is about 64 degrees [Fahrenheit]. For the Mid-Atlantic region, that usually comes by about the third week of May, but it could be sooner. Usually, you have stragglers on either side.

Often, the cicadas will emerge after a soaking rain. If you want to monitor soil temperatures where you live to determine when the cicada emergence will begin, here’s a step-by-step guide on just how to do it.

For about four to six weeks after the cicadas emerge, woods and neighborhoods will ring with their buzzing mating calls. After the cicadas mate, each female will lay hundreds of eggs in thin tree branches. Then the adult cicadas will die. When the eggs hatch, new cicada nymphs (cicadas before they’re fully grown) will fall from the trees and burrow back underground, starting the 17-year cycle again.

Middle-sized gray tree branch with 15 closely spaced cicadas against green leafy background.
Cicadas on a tree branch in 2017. Image via Cicada Safari.

The cicadas won’t hurt you. They don’t sting and they’re not venomous. Cicadas get a bad rap because they remind people of the biblical plagues of locusts (a different insect) that would eat entire crop fields. But the cicadas set to emerge this spring in the United States are harmless to humans and won’t wipe out fields or gardens.

Map of the eastern U.S. with hundreds of multicolored dots.
Broods of periodical cicadas, identified by Roman numerals, emerge on 13- or 17-year cycles across the eastern and midwestern U.S. Image via University of Connecticut.

There are perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 species of cicadas around the world, but the 13- and 17-year periodical cicadas are unique to eastern North America.

After 17 years underground, sucking sap from tree roots, the cicadas will surface en masse. Dime-sized holes (about 2 cm) will litter the ground where the emerging nymphs crawl up toward daylight. The cicadas’ only defense against predators is to arise together in an enormous swarm, overwhelming the predators’ ability to eat them all. This technique is called predator satiation. As many as 1.5 million cicadas per acre (4,000 square meters) can cover some areas of the eastern United States.

Once above ground, the cicadas announce their arrival. The main aggravation cicadas inflict on the rest of us is their loud, buzzing mating call. The males head toward the tops of trees and let out a loud whirring noise that can fill the air at up to 80 to 100 decibels, equal to the intensity of a lawn mower or motorcycle. During the last emergence of the Brood X cicadas in 2004, the PGA’s Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, was awash in the nonstop buzz of cicadas, providing a noisy backdrop to television coverage as the golfers played 72 holes over the course of four days.

Shiny black bug with long clear wings and big red eyes.
The Brood X cicadas return in spring 2021 after a 17-year absence. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The main damage that cicadas inflict on the landscape comes when female cicadas drill holes into slender tree branches, where they then lay their eggs. To protect younger or vulnerable trees, cover them with netting to keep the cicadas away.

The eggs deposited by the females will eventually hatch, producing nymphs the size of a grain of rice. Those nymphs fall off the trees and burrow underground, beginning their 17 years of subterranean life, while above ground, their parents end their life stage, the carcasses piling up under trees and on the grass, returning nutrients to the soil that will feed the trees and eventually their children, who dine off the sap of the tree roots.

The whole cycle of emergence, predation, mating, birth and death will take place over the course of about six weeks before the landscape again returns to its former state to await the next emergence in 2038.

Bottom line: Reports are beginning to come in from D.C., Tennessee, Ohio and more as the 17-year periodical Brood X cicadas emerge from their subterranean dwellings.

May 11, 2021

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Kelly Kizer Whitt

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