Have you ever been late to a party? I mean really late, so late that by the time you arrived, the party was over and the guests were long gone?
Gene Kritsky calls them “stragglers.” Kritsky is a biologist and the dean of the School of Behavioral and Natural Sciences at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati. He’s also the creator of the Cicada Safari app. More than half a million photos were uploaded by citizen scientists to the app during the 2021 emergence of Brood X. So far this spring, Kritsky has had straggler cicada sightings from 11 states.
Late cicadas have been noted in other years, but the app — something that wasn’t around in 2004 — makes it easy to track and report sightings of tardy bugs in all their manifestations.
“We’re counting nymph skins found on leaves from deciduous trees,” Kritsky said. “We’re also looking for immature cicadas with red eyes and black spots.”
In other words, these aren’t the annual cicadas that we get every summer. This is the insect — Magicicada — that made all the headlines last year.
Samantha Mina is delighted to see them. The 34-year-old author has filed straggler reports to Cicada Safari from Reston, where she lives.
Mina followed Kritsky’s cicada coverage last year and knew there might be some outliers this year. She started combing her Chestnut Grove neighborhood in late April and saw her first evidence — a nymph skin — on May 11.
“First I found the nymph shell that he had shed. I took a picture of that and posted it. I got really excited,” Mina said.
She later found a couple of adult cicadas in an azalea near her condo.
“I'm really, really into the cicadas,” she said. “I deliberately go out every day looking for them.”
Mina’s affection stems from the insects’ 2004 emergence. She was about to turn 17 that year, the same age as the cicadas, and felt a connection. An author of science-fiction novels, Mina is working on a book about 17-year-olds in Reston who experience the 2038 emergence. The tentative title: “Cicada Serenade.”
The Cicada Safari app — and an iNaturalist project coordinated by Jessee Smith, Kritsky’s wife — has logged stragglers in Virginia, Maryland (in Glen Echo and Pasadena), Tennessee, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio. Most are Brood X latecomers, but some may be emerging early from other broods.
What explains the miscalculations, either a year late to the party or a year early?
Kritsky said a cicada counts the passage of time by noting the increase and decrease in the fluid flow of the tree root it feeds on during its nymphal stage.
“If for some reason, because of the local weather, a tree didn’t do well and didn’t have a large leaf set one year, the cicadas feeding on those roots might not count that as a year,” he said.
Could climate change contribute to their scrambled internal calendars? Possibly, he said. We know global warming affects tree growth, so it could play a role. But the overwhelming majority of Brood X cicadas got it right. By last week, Kritsky had received only 85 reports of stragglers, an infinitesimal speck when compared with the billions of bugs that swarmed us last year, right on schedule.
Said Kritsky: “This is like finding a four-leaf clover. It’s not going to be a common thing.”
What is life like for a straggler cicada? Alas, unless that cicada is antisocial, celibate and nursing a death wish, not too good, I’m afraid. I asked Kritsky if these latecomers will get to do the thing they were put on this earth to do: mate.
“It's very unlikely,” he said. There’s safety in numbers and that’s one thing these cicadas don’t have.
“Once they emerge, they go up into trees for like five days before the skeleton hardens,” Kritsky said. “That’s when a male starts singing. Once he starts singing, he draws attention. Birds notice pretty quickly. Is it possible [the cicadas will] mate? Yes, but it’s more likely they will die in frustration.”
And that sounds like me at a lot of the parties I went to when I was their age.