The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Billions of cicadas blanket the Washington region. The Smithsonian is looking for a perfect few hundred.

The museum holds one of the world’s largest entomology collections, and its working to add the latest generation of Brood X.

Periodical cicadas sit on leaves in Rock Creek Park. Cicada nymphs burrow into the ground where they live for the first 17 years of their lives after they hatched from their egg, The 17-year cicadas live in the North. But there are also 13-year cicadas which are found in the South. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Floyd Shockley has trekked to Zambia to gather moths and to South America to forage for beetles, because the manager of one of the world’s largest entomology collections needs to go where the insects are.

But Tuesday, he just had to take a walk in a D.C. park.

Some very collectible bugs are blanketing the Washington area — the Brood X periodical cicadas that come out once every 17 years. And they could hardly be more convenient for Shockley, the collections manager at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

He toted a mesh container during one of what will be many trips into Rock Creek Park, plucking perfect-looking specimens from leaves and tree trunks to be among the hundreds preserved in the museum’s permanent collection. A few dozen will be shipped to other museums around the country. Six will be cryogenically frozen for genome sequencing.

Like any other expedition, Tuesday’s had specific sights, sounds and hazards.

The sights turned out to be exactly what Shockley was looking for: At least one male and one female from each of the three species of Brood X cicadas.

The sounds included a few exclamations from Shockley:

“I see you hiding!”

“Hear the song? It’s firing up — that sort of UFO sound? That’s them.”

“They get so frustrated when you pick them up!”

“Oh, my goodness! You got — oh, that’s a good one!”

(Note: It was actually not good from the cicada’s perspective. The specimen he was holding had the telltale white plug of Massospora cicadina, a fungus that will turn a small percentage of Brood X into sex-crazed “flying salt shakers of death.” It was the first fungus-laden cicada Shockley had found this year.)

Two of the four expedition members swallowed flies, a hazard of collecting — and not the only one. After a reporter and the museum’s head of public affairs had been picking cicadas off plants for 15 minutes or so, Shockley mentioned that some of the bugs were resting on poison ivy.

Who's in favor of eating cicadas? The scientist who study them.

Shockley has been the keeper of the Smithsonian’s entomology collection since 2015 and has lived in the area since 2010, so this is his first go-round in the heart of Brood X territory.

He can tell which species is near by just looking at the holes they had tunneled in the ground when they emerged. The largest and most common, Magicicada septendecim, creates dime-sized holes. The two smaller species, Magicicada cassinii and Magicicada septemdecula, make holes closer to the diameter of a pencil.

Not just any cicadas make it into Shockley’s container.

He rejected some with imperfections, such as malformed wings.

Others were doing such quintessential cicada things that Shockley didn’t have the heart to disturb them, such as a chunky female who had clearly already mated and was about to lay eggs, and a few clumps of males poised to sing, like choir members gathering before a performance.

A collector can afford to be picky when there are literally billions of options.

By the time the cicadas die off in late June or July, Shockley will have hundreds of insects from areas all over Brood X territory, which ranges from eastern Illinois to Maryland and northern Georgia to Pennsylvania and New York, according to the University of Connecticut’s Cicada Project.

“There’s not really a need to collect huge, huge numbers, but we do want to collect enough so that we capture some diversity of populations — different populations scattered around the emergence,” he said. “Ethical collecting is really important to us at the museum. We try not to take more than we have to … but we are in the business of science. We need to collect enough, because we’re not going to get another chance to collect these guys for 17 years.”

Researchers will compare 2021 cicadas with those from previous emergences and look for changes in geographic patterns. For instance, Shockley said Brood X cicadas have turned up this year in Prince William County, Va. where they had not been seen before.

Almost all the cicadas he collects will end up pinned in drawers along with the museum’s 35 million other entomology specimens, including Brood X cicadas dating to the mid-1800s.

Shockley, 46, hopes to be retired by the time the 2038 brood emerges, although collecting another round probably wouldn’t be a strain.

“This is the easiest collecting I’ve ever done, frankly,” he said. “I work on fungus beetles, so I spend a lot of my time on my belly or my back crawling along the rainforest floor near dead wood. This is like picking berries.”