BugCast: Warming temperatures with moderate-to-heavy cicadas

A pair of Cicadas from Brood X in Oakton, VA, June 3, 2004.  (Kevin Ambrose

A pair of cicadas from Brood X in Oakton, VA, June 3, 2004. (Kevin Ambrose)

By now, you’ve probably heard about the 17-year cicadas from Brood II that will emerge this spring from New England to  Virginia.  I want to let you know we’re only several weeks away from cicada show time.

It’s possible the first cicadas have already started to emerge; I saw a few fresh tunnels at the bases of trees in my yard this past weekend.

To help you understand and prepare for the cicada’s arrival, I have put together a post to outline the following:

1)  A review of the various cicada broods that impact our area;

2) The weather conditions that trigger the cicadas to emerge from the ground;

3) Interesting cicada facts; and

4) My top three cicada memories from past broods.

Cicada nymphs shed their skin and take flight.  This is a cluster of skins in Oakton, VA from Brood X, June 3, 2004.  (Kevin Ambrose)

Cicada nymphs shed their skin and take flight after emerging from the ground. This is a cluster of skins photographed in Oakton, VA from Brood X, June 3, 2004. (Kevin Ambrose)

1) A review of the cicada broods –

There are at least five different 17-year cicada broods that emerge and impact the Mid-Atlantic states at various intervals and years.  There is at least one 13-year cicada brood that also impacts the region.  I have lived in the Washington, D.C. area my entire life and I only remember two broods that were widespread and easily noticeable.  Those were the 17-year Broods II and X.  One of those two broods, Brood II, is expected to emerge this spring.  Here’s some cicada brood data to consider:

Brood II is named “East Coast Brood”, next emergence 2013, impacted area CT to VA.

Brood X is named “Great Eastern Brood”, next emergence 2021, impacted area NY to NC.

Brood I (next in 2029), Brood V (next in 2016), Brood IX (next in 2020), Brood XIV (next in 2025), and Brood XIX (next in 2024) also emerge in our region, but I don’t remember their impact as significant as Brood II and Brood X, at least in our immediate Washington area.  I’d like to hear other opinions on the different broods and impact.

The ground is littered with dozens of cicada nymph skins in Reston, VA, May 24, 2004. (Kevin Ambrose)

The ground is littered with dozens of cicada nymph skins in Reston, VA, May 24, 2004. (Kevin Ambrose)

2) Weather conditions that trigger cicadas –

Cicada nymphs are generally buried in the ground from 6-12 inches below the surface, but some nymphs have been found as deep as 24 inches.  When the ground temperature at nymph level warms to 64 degrees, the nymphs dig up to the surface.  It takes a long period of sustained spring-like weather to warm the deep soil levels into the mid-60s.  Thus, cicadas typically emerge in late May and June in the Washington area.  They don’t get fooled by January thaws, unlike our pesky stink bugs.

Ground temperature plot from Sutron's Cicada Tracker

Ground temperature plot from Sutron’s Cicada Tracker

I know from my past photo records that brood X cicadas were active in our area on the third week of May in 2004.  I checked the weather records for Washington in 2004 and the spring was milder than this year’s spring, but not by a lot.  So, I’d expect to see cicadas here by the end of May, maybe sooner.  June, however, is the big cicada month, when the bug is most active and “sings” the loudest.  Note, the cicada’s noise is described below.

A pair of Brood X cicadas, June 3, 2004.  (Kevin Ambrose)

A pair of Brood X cicadas, June 3, 2004. (Kevin Ambrose)

3) Cicada facts –

After an interview with entomologist, Russ Horton from HomeTeam Pest Defense, I have compiled a few interesting cicada facts:

1) The adults live four to six weeks.  The nymphs tunnel out of the ground, shed their skin, fly, sing, mate, and die.  They lay their eggs on tree branches which fall to the ground producing nymphs which burrow back into the ground to restart the cycle.

2) The sound organ in cicadas are tymbals, drum like structures on the abdomen of the insect.  In most species only males have these organs.  They are used to “call” females or warn of nearby predators.   Females can make sounds but they “flick” their wings to answer the mating calls.

3) The cicada lifecycle of 13 and 17 years is a mystery, but it is known that it disrupts natural predators.  With 13 and 17 years intervals of emergence, predators cannot adapt and scale to the insect.  In some cases, a predator may only see the insect once in their life time.

4) Cicadas are not destructive to crops or trees and they do not bite humans.  They are a clumsy and fearless bug that flies and lands on almost all surfaces, including humans, cars, houses, and pets.  They prefer trees, however.

5) Cicadas can produce sounds up to 120 dB.  Their “singing” to find mates can be very loud, particularly in areas that have a lot of trees.  When hundreds or thousands of cicadas “sing” together at the same time, the sound is very noticeable and can be found annoying.

A cicada close-up, June 3, 2004. (Kevin Ambrose)

A cicada close-up, June 3, 2004. (Kevin Ambrose)

4) My top three cicada memories from past broods –

Memory #1 – Cicadas hitting the car windshield when driving 55+ mph on the highway.  Cicadas are big, plump, juicy bugs that are filled with something that resembles white goo.  If you think driving in Florida is bad in the summer, try driving through an active brood of cicadas on I-495 this June.  It’s not fun. To give you a visual, they splatter big, with a loud thump or pop, and they explode.  If you don’t see them coming, the impact may startle you.  Then, after impact, the goo will stream up your windshield.  Windshield wipers smear it around a lot, but with a little washer fluid, much of the goo will wash off with time.  You may need frequent car washes later this spring, particularly for the front of your vehicle.

Memory #2 – Pulling cicadas out of my co-worker’s and friend’s hair.  Cicadas are clumsy, fearless bugs that fly into everything, including your hair.  They tend to get tangled in long hair.  I’ve seen it happen several times in the past and I’ve helped several lady friends fish cicadas out from their long hair while the victim basically freaks out.  Cicadas are harmless, but they make a lot of noise buzzing in the hair next to one’s ear.  I think it’s the enormous size and sensation of the bug, rapidly fluttering its wings and spinning over-and-over in the hair, which is most unsettling.  I’m just guessing at that fact, however, because I have short hair and they just bounce off of me. The cicada victims I mentioned above were usually too upset to discuss their experience in any meaningful or coherent detail.  Note, all of the cicada victims did survive their bug encounters.

Memory #3 – Flying cicadas like a small kite.  When I was a kid, my friends and I would raid our mother’s sewing kits for the thinnest thread that we could find and we’d make little slip knots in the thread and tie it around the cicada’s body or back leg.  Then, we’d fly the cicada in the air about four or five feet above us.  Yes, I know, it’s cruel, but we were just kids.  Anyway, this technique did not work for all cicadas, just the bigger, stronger bugs.  By the way, I’m not too worried about giving our kids this “cruel” idea since most kids today are too wrapped up in their video games, cell phone apps, and the Internet to even think about going outside to play with a bug.

Do you have any cicada memories from past broods?  Let us know.

In closing, I’ve not seen a definitive statement explaining how widespread or dense the cicada emergence will be later this spring.  From past experience, I’ve seen Fairfax County impacted by cicadas but not Prince William County, and vice versa.  Thus, the bugs may not completely cover our entire region.  In addition, the development of wooded land in our area has reduced the number of cicadas by stripping trees and top soil for the development of subdivisions and shopping centers, but the number of bugs could still be quite large.

Only time will tell regarding the cicadas and we’re only a few weeks away their next act.

Related: Washington area braces for cicadas’ return

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