For a lot of us, there will be no cicadas this year


An adult cicada emerges from its skin at night in Fairfax Station, Va., May 17. (Julia Schmalz/BLOOMBERG)
John Kelly
Columnist June 3, 2013

I described my symptoms to the doctor: an inchoate longing, a crick in my neck from sweeping my head back and forth as I scrutinized the ground, a straining in my ears as if I’d been trying to pick out distant music.

What’s up, doc?

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

“You’re suffering from a bad case of cicada envy,” said Mike Raupp, a professor of entomology at the University of Maryland College Park.

I had called Mike — creator of a great blog called bugoftheweek.com — to see when I could expect to see cicadas, those red-eyed creatures that emerge every 17 years. For months, I’ve been reading stories about how Brood II — last spotted in 1996 — would fill the skies from North Carolina to Connecticut.

Since periodical cicadas only emerge once the temperature eight inches below the ground reaches 64 degrees, I thought that weird cool snap a few weeks ago had slowed them down. But Mike was adamant: There will be no cicadas in the District or in Montgomery, Prince George’s or Howard counties. Nor will they be in Arlington or Alexandria.

“I’ve been telling people since April they weren’t going to have them in this area,” he said. Mike has been like a reverse Paul Revere: The cicadas aren’t coming! The cicadas aren’t coming!

That’s not to say there aren’t any cicadas in the greater Washington area.

“Go to Lorton,” Mike said. “Gunston Elementary School, Pohick Bay. If people really want to see them it’s a very short trip down to [southern] Fairfax County. Or up to northern New Jersey or the New York metro area.”

Mike directed me to a map at cicadas.info that clearly shows the Mid-Atlantic distribution of Brood II. It rises through central Virginia, skips over the Washington metropolitan area, then resumes in eastern Pennsylvania. There’s also a small, teardrop-shaped range in Southern Maryland.

I’m not alone in thinking I was going to have some in my neighborhood, am I?

No, said Mike. “I think what happened is that in 2004 we basically got spoiled.”

That was the year of “the big brood”: Brood X, which extends from the Mississippi to the East Coast.

“Now we come up to Brood II,” Mike said. “It’s called the Eastern Brood. It extends from North Carolina to the Hudson Valley, but tends to be very patchily distributed. For example, in Lorton and St. Mary’s there are tens of thousands per square mile — millions down there. . . . When people hear cicadas are going to be in Maryland, the assumption is they’re going to be everywhere, like last time. But they’re disjunct spatially. Where you have them one year, it’s rare to have them in the same place in the next brood.”

Some of the maps circulating on the Web have been suspect. Citizen scientists claim to have spotted cicadas in such places as Baltimore, which, like Washington, is not home to Brood II.

Not long ago, Mike went to northern Anne Arundel County to chase down a report of tiny holes in the ground under a tree, a sign that could mean cicadas had emerged and were starting their brief, above-ground life cycle.

The holes turned out to have been made by ground-nesting bees.

“A lot of the early reports, frankly, could have been less than accurate,” he said.

So, for many of us, no cicadas. As I spoke to Mike, I couldn’t hide the disappointment in my voice.

“Christmas didn’t come this year for the cicadaphiles, I’m afraid,” he said. “Sorry, man.”

What’s the buzz?

Of course, not everyone likes cicadas. Tom Meagher lives between Dale City and Manassas, where the critters are currently whining away lustily. But even before they emerged, his bug-hating daughter, Megan, was concerned about them.

Megan lives in New York City and when planning a trip home had called her mother to get the latest report on Brood II. Just when she rang, Tom stepped out of the shower. Hot, moist air from the shower sometimes triggers a smoke alarm that rings throughout the house.

Tom said Megan’s first words were “Are those the cicadas in the background?!”

Then she screamed that she wasn’t going to visit till winter.

There may not be cicadas in your neighborhood, but there will be cicada poetry. Wednesday and Thursday I’ll print some of my favorite reader submissions about these mysterious creatures.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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