clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Summer Is Coming. So Are Trillions of Brood X Cicadas.

A once-every-17-year cicada emergence is about to take place. To prepare, we set out to find the massive insects—and learn all about how they live, sound, and taste.

Jay Torres

Have you heard the news? The cicadas are coming—and some have even started to arrive already. In a matter of days, trillions of the once-every-17-years species of Brood X cicadas will emerge from their burrows and blanket much of the Eastern United States in a wave of ear-splitting mating calls and discarded molt shells. To commemorate the occasion, we here at The Ringer present to you Bug Day: a celebration of all things insects, and their influence—for better or worse—on sports and popular culture.

In a greenwood behind a church near the border of Prince George’s County, Maryland, and the nation’s capital, there are holes in the ground. A collection of four digit-sized burrows, to be exact. The creatures we’re hunting for lie within them. How deep is unclear, but they’re down there—really, they always have been.

They’re insects, our prize. At this stage of development they’re referred to as nymphs, suggesting etymologically that they are newly made, fresh, and immature. But in reality they’ve lived beneath this plot for about 17 years. If they were human, they’d be old enough to drive, apply for a passport, and register as an organ donor. Which, of course, they can’t. Because they’re nymphs. Cicada nymphs, more precisely. And as you may have heard, they’ll soon be coming out en masse.

From the middle of May to the end of June, in a vast territory stretching across most of the mid-Atlantic and a few Midwestern states, a constant and yet elusive revelry is about to take place. Brood X (as opposed to Broods I through IX, or Broods XIII and XIV, each of which has a different emergence cycle) of the 17-year periodical cicada line is set to bloom. For about a six-week period, the number of total cicadas in the aforementioned areas will likely reach into the trillions. By comparison, the total human population of the United States is just over 330 million.

Periodical cicadas of this variety are distinct to North America, and have populated the continent for millions of years. Appearing in such overwhelming numbers, the bugs are often received by the unfamiliar as a harbinger of pestilence and downfall; according to National Geographic, Puritan settlers in Massachusetts likened the bugs to “swarms from the Old Testament and called them ‘locusts’” in 1634. Now, in the midst of global pandemic, people could be forgiven for leaving a mark of lamb’s blood on their front door when alerted of the insects’ imminent approach. Yet the cicadas are in truth nothing more than a bizarre and natural marvel. The emergence of Brood X is, at its essence, a sanctified blip on the calendar.

“They’ve been feeding on the tree sap, right on the roots underneath us, basically. And they’re all over the place,” says Angela Saenz, a graduate student at the University of Maryland who studies entomology and has volunteered to be my guide in the hunt to find cicadas. Saenz is wearing a white T-shirt that features a print of a cicada sprawled from just below her shoulder to just above her navel. She’s been digging holes for the better part of an hour, to no avail. Nymphs don’t like water, and the ground is still moist from a recent shower. “As long as there’s a tree that they can feed on, they will be there,” she assures me.

Saenz’s professor, Dr. Michael Raupp, set up this excursion after I reached out to him to inquire about Brood X’s arrival. The purpose of the venture is to locate a cicada nymph and, hopefully, see the creature that will define this summer up close. Raupp researches periodical cicadas throughout the country and educates the public by dispelling popular myths about the insects. He often talks to reporters and news networks, and in 2013 even made an appearance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, in which he and Leno ate cicadas on national television. “I popped one in my mouth and I said, ‘It’s got a buttery texture and a nice nutty flavor,’” recalls Raupp. “[Leno] popped one in his mouth and said, ‘These are better than Cheetos.’”

The bugs have quite the reputation. For one, cicadas are gargantuan by insect standards. If the average grasshopper is about as large as the tip of an index finger, a fully grown cicada is the size of a large adult thumb, both in length and width. Remember that photo of José Altuve standing next to Aaron Judge? Think of the size discrepancy in that context … now imagine trillions of the insect equivalent of Judge hitting the country simultaneously.

Secondly, the cicadas are loud. They’re the screamers of the animal kingdom: The males make a revving, guttural blare that’s meant to attract females to mate. When multiplied by a few million and applied in unison, the wave of sound can seem industrial in nature, a bit like a chorus of lawn mowers. In 2004, when Brood X last came out, a Maryland resident told The Baltimore Sun, “It sounds like I’m living in the Amazon.” “They can get to 110 decibels,” says Saenz. That’s roughly the same decibel level as a Metallica concert.

There’s also the matter of their life cycle, which is spent almost entirely underground, save for six hedonistic weeks above it. Cicadas start off as eggs laid on tree branches, falling to the ground only when hatched. Raupp estimates the tumble to be between 60 and 80 feet on average. Their body size, he says, is no more than a few millimeters at this point, making the fall the equivalent of a human jumping off a skyscraper. After impact, the micro nymphs will bury themselves, searching innately for the roots of a nearby plant or tree. Cicada nymphs can’t survive in soil temperature that’s below 64 degrees Fahrenheit, so they have to dig deep. Once they’ve reached an optimal depth they feast by harvesting crucial xylem fluid from nearby roots.

“[Xylem] is the plumbing that conducts water and nutrients up to the canopy of the tree for photosynthesis,” says Raupp. “And they’re just going to suck that underground for 17 years, shedding their skin several times, before they emerge 17 years later.”

Cicadas are not asleep when they’re underground; they are merely growing. They spend the better part of two decades preparing for a single six-week extravaganza—their lives quite literally culminate in one big party. When a nymph is ready to emerge after its yearslong incubation, it must wait for the soil temperature to climb high enough. The holes we encounter in our search are known as turrets or chimneys, and they enable nymphs to venture outside and test their surroundings, to see whether the temperature is right. When the threshold is met, the bugs burst through and out of the ground. It’s the insect equivalent of the Undertaker rising from his casket.

The cicadas do not emerge all at once. There are usually a few outliers that breach too early, leaving themselves vulnerable to hungry predators. Even for those that do arrive on time, there are multiple waves (to go along with multiple species) of periodical cicadas, stretching the season across a month and a half.

Much like a carcass that falls to the seafloor, the arrival of a cicada brood results in a momentary feeding frenzy. Birds, raccoons, frogs, opossums, snakes, and squirrels all gorge themselves on the creatures, until they simply cannot eat any more. The bugs that survive then go about living and, of utmost importance, completing the process of procreation.

There is a fungus Saenz tells me about, Massospora cicadina, that infects cicadas through their abdomen. This fungus contains chemicals like those that are found in hallucinogenic mushrooms, and it eats away at the insect’s lower half, essentially replacing a cicada’s gut, genitals, and bottom with a makeshift structure of fungal spores. Once inside a cicada body, Massospora results in a kind of mind control, wherein an infected host is compelled to copulate with others, thereby spreading the fungus throughout a community before dying. While this may sound terrifying—CNN has referred to impacted bugs as “zombie cicadas”—Saenz says that neither the infected cicadas nor the fungus itself is a danger to humans. “It’s very specialized in the cicada,” she says, “and it’s just there on the ground, in the soil, just waiting until [they] come out.”

Massospora would seem to be a major obstacle for cicadas’ existence, but given the sheer volume of bugs in the brood, the fungus’s impact is limited. A large number may be lost, but the machine will continue to churn. Once out of the ground, each nymph searches for the nearest tree to summit, at which point it attaches to bark and sheds its creamy exoskeleton in favor of a new tar-toned shell. It takes a few days for this new husk to harden.

Raupp says a mature cicada will live for only about two to four weeks. Males and females will mate, and then the females will lay up to 600 eggs on the branches of the same trees they just crawled up. A few days later the 17-year cycle begins anew: The adults die and fertilize the soil, and the babies fall out of the trees and into the grounds of their ancestors.

By our fourth tree we still haven’t found anything. There’s a creek a few yards in the distance, a stony vein of water and nutrients. A mixture of dead leaves and crisp clovers blankets the three turrets at the base of a conifer. Water trickles occasionally from the treetop. Saenz continues to tunnel through the earth, pausing only to briefly describe the anatomy of our prey. Each cicada nymph has a piercing tube, she says, that it uses to feast on root sap. Fully developed females also have a tiny swordlike extension that protrudes from their thorax to cut the bark of a tree and deposit their eggs in the slit. “I really wish we’d find one so that I can show you,” she says, slightly perturbed by the wait.

Soon enough, spotting cicadas will be the least of anyone’s concern. They will make themselves heard in parks, backyards, and wooded spaces. They will reign over branches and tree trunks. Yet they will not invade areas without greenery, nor will they travel great distances. While their size and sound might seem menacing, the bugs pose no threat to humans or pets. “Cicadas are not going to bite, they’re not going to sting,” says Raupp. “They’re not going to fly away with small children and dogs like the monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. These are harmless creatures.”

Since he knows the comparison will keep being made, Raupp again emphasizes the difference between cicadas and biblical locusts of yore. “Locusts are grasshoppers. Grasshoppers have chewing mouthparts,” he says. “These are more related to aphids.” Cicadas have little desire for us or our produce; they merely want to mate, drink, and die. (A vibe.)

They are also, I’ve been told, quite tasty. Raupp’s website links out to a cicada cookbook of sorts that a former student put together. It features recipes such as “Cicada Dumplings,” “Banana Cicada Bread,” and “El Chirper Tacos.” Raupp says that while the cicadas are best served cooked (and lord, please, season them), even eaten raw they are not so different from seafood like shrimp or prawns. “Here in America, let’s face it. I bet you’ve eaten a clam, I bet you might have eaten a raw oyster. And that’s what I say, ‘Guys, do you know what an oyster does for a living?’ It sits at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay and it sucks you know what out of the water, and now you’re not going to eat this cicada that’s been sucking on plant sap for 17 years? What’s up with that?’”

Finally, we find one on a hillside. We spot five burrows protruding from the forest floor, and it takes only two strikes with a shovel to excavate the creatures from within. They are a pinkish beige, thicker than my finger and wide enough to cover the creases at the center of my hand. They are heavy and furtive, and—if I can admit as much—deeply off-putting.

They are not terrifying, though. Just natural. The type of natural that people generally avoid, step on, spray with poison, or call an exterminator to deal with, but natural nonetheless. Flipped on its back, the nymph has a sharp tube, the one Saenz promised, attached to its mouth, making it look like something out of a Ridley Scott flick. It is understandable, after holding the insect, how cicadas can reach such daring sizes in maturity. It would be surprising if they didn’t.

A step outside of the canopy, on a manmade pathway, an inquisitive onlooker watches us explore. His hair is a speckled gray, and he’s tall enough to make eye contact with us over the wall of ferns and branches that mark the thicket. He’s standing absolutely still, save for a slight lean, and he wants to know if we’re looking for cicadas. Saenz tells him that we are. “Are they here yet?” he asks warily from the shadow of the trees, as if the cicadas haven’t really been here all along.