Farewell, cicadas

I flew out of town Friday morning–my first post-vaccination travel!–and returned Tuesday afternoon. Those four days and change spent visiting my mom, my brother and his family in the Boston area were enough to come home to a Washington area that no longer sounded as it did before I left.

By which I mean, the high-pitched call of millions of cicadas buzzing for each other’s attention no longer greeted me the moment I stepped outside the house. Instead, it was the standard soundtrack of birds chirping that I’d heard most of the previous 17 years. Walking around the neighborhood was different too, without red- or orange-eyed bugs crawling underfoot, flying about, or occasionally landing on me.

Barely a month after Brood X emerged in volume in my neighborhood, the cicadas seem to be vanishing as quickly as they appeared. I now see remarkably few signs of their having been here at all; the weeping cherry tree I planted last spring had one small branch die off and show scars from female cicadas depositing their eggs there, but that seems to be the extent of the plant damage. And so far, the yard does not smell from an excess of decomposing cicadas, something I would very much like not to change.

I do have all the pictures I took of Brood X to remind me, plus a video or two. But as weirdly amusing as I found these harmless bugs and their lifecycle from nymph to adult (maybe seeing their mass emergence for a second time in my life reduced the freakout factor?), that was nothing compared to the interest my daughter developed in them. After more than a year of the pandemic penning in her horizons and, for most of that time, reducing school to a series of boxes on a screen, a fascinating spectacle of nature arrived in our backyard and around our neighborhood that she’d never seen before and wanted to learn more about.

As crazy as it may sound, I will miss the insect word’s answer to short-period comets just because of that. But these little alien-looking arthropods haven’t really gone; their offspring are now beginning a 17-year subterranean sojourn that will lead to them emerging en masse to surprise the children of 2038, and hopefully fascinate some of them.

Waiting for the cicadas

The neighborhood is about to get a lot more crowded for the next month or so. The mid-Atlantic’s 17-year cicadas are now emerging–first as holes they make in the ground while crawling out as nymphs, then as exoskeletons left on branches and leaves after molting, and soon as hordes of bugs with beady red eyes.

Around my neighborhood, the local ambassadors of Brood X haven’t yet reached that third stage. Every day I see more of their cast-off exoskeletons (exuviae, if you didn’t know) clinging to foliage like little beige bug bookmarks, but until tonight I hadn’t seen any of this year’s cicadas alive. That’s when I learned that you can hear them molting–a sort of quiet, slow and moist clicking–then spot them slowly tugging their pale selves out of their old shells.

Yes, that is slightly alarming to witness.

But it’s nowhere close to the freakout potential of having thousands of cicadas within a block–meaning you have to watch where you step, and that going for a jog or a bike ride ensures some will bounce off of you. Plus, there is the vaguely extraterrestrial racket generated by their mating calls.

I am fairly tolerant of insects overall (except for mosquitoes, which should be genetically engineered into extinction), but gardening may lose much of its charms until the middle of June.

I learned this in 2004, the previous emergence of Brood X and my own introduction to the evolutionary freakshow that is the periodical cicadas’ survival strategy. Instead of trying to hide or escape from predators, cicadas arrive in such massive numbers that other animals get full and have to take a break from this free buffet. The surviving cicadas can then make millions of cicada eggs that the females deposit in trees–from which larvae will drop to the ground, burrow underground and wait 17 years before emerging to fascinate or frighten the children of 2038.

People have been writing about this ritual of life in the mid-Atlantic for centuries, but this year’s cicada onslaught will be different from previous emergences because of a different plague: social media. If you suffer from any sort of arthropod anxiety, you’re not going to enjoy all the cicada Facebook status updates, cicada tweets, cicada Instagram pics and stories, cicada TikToks, and other social testimony that will soon be swarming screens. This could be a really good time to give those apps a rest and instead start reading an intimidatingly long book.