Seventeen years ago, when the time was finally right, my newborn son, Jake, emerged into the bright lights of an Annapolis operating room.
First, we heard them, a crazy off-key chorus as loud as a blender: High-pitched alien sounds, melodies like birdsong, a lower rumbling bass. This boy band was looking for love.
Then, we saw them, these large and boisterous insects, clumsily flying through the air in thick swarms that felt impossible to dodge. So many creatures where there had been none the day before. The squirrels and birds and cats were as stunned as we were, but soon filled their bellies with a feast that literally fell from the sky.
Life in this world of billions of cicadas was but a blip in time, lasting a few weeks. Soon, all was quiet. Instead of the cacophony of mating calls, we could again hear the truck traffic and the lawn mowers. The weeds masquerading as our grass were now covered in cicada carcasses, crunching underfoot, all of that life snuffed out in an instant.
This riotous rhythm of nature wouldn’t delight our senses again for 17 years.
Tiny cicada nymphs, born of all that noise, were beginning the cycle anew, starting their lives soundlessly in the dark underground, feeding off tree roots, crawling a few feet this way or that, molting every four years until they were fully grown.
In those still moments, I thought about how, by the time the cicadas returned in spring 2021, my boy would almost be a man, unrecognizable in every way. As for me, I’d be lucky if gray hair and wrinkles were the only evidence of the passing of a generation, from a sprite in her early 30s to a woman the very definition of middle aged.
I could only imagine the joy and anxieties to come over the next 17 years, the preoccupations of motherhood from car seats to lost teeth to learner’s permits, as the cicadas remained out of sight.
Periodical and puzzling
Almost every spring, somewhere in the eastern half of the United States, a group of cicadas emerges.
In 1907, an entomologist named Charles Lester Marlatt developed a Roman numeral cataloguing system of these “broods” based on geographic location. Brood I, for example, is found in parts of Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, and will appear next in 2029. Some broods emerge every 13 years; others, 17.
Brood X lives in the Mid-Atlantic and New York and as far west as Illinois. The largest of the broods, it’s the one that Jake and I met in 2004. It’s the one coming back sometime this May.
That the broods emerge like clockwork on such a protracted schedule has long been a subject of fascination and research. How do they know when it’s time to come out? What are they doing down there that takes so long? And when they come out, why are there so many of them?
To begin to understand this, I called Gene Kritsky, an entomologist at a small Catholic college in Cincinnati. One of his many books is titled, “Periodical Cicadas: The Plague and the Puzzle.”
He ran me through a quick biology lesson. There are 1,000 species of cicada, he told me, but only a handful are periodical cicadas, emerging on this bizarre 17-year schedule. And their genus has the most enchanting of names: Magicicada.
The Magicicada emerge because it’s time to mate. That chorus we hear? It’s the males trying to attract the ladies. The songs draw females to their suitors and, when she finds one that captures her heart, she clicks her wings silently.
Female cicadas each lay 600 eggs on the underside of young tree branches. The work of mating now complete, the quiet returns and cicada carcasses will soon litter sidewalks and lawns and decks. In a matter of three to four weeks, those newly laid eggs will hatch into nymphs that drop 80 feet to the ground, where they will hunker down for the next 17 years.
Down a foot or two under the surface, the nymphs will suck on the xylem of tree roots. It’s not the caloric tree sap we think of but a liquid containing little nutrition. Think a drop of tomato juice in a gallon of water. This probably explains why cicadas take so long to mature.
And then, one day, their molecular clocks, which scientists believe may be linked to the growing seasons, will finally tell them that this is the year.
“There’s nothing like it that we know about anywhere in biology,” says Keith Clay, a cicada expert at Tulane University.
'Bugs of history'
When the nymphs do burrow out, they won’t be recognizable right away. They first come out in the dark, their exoskeletons still soft, a glowing white that will darken as they shed their outer skin one last time. Tree trunks and telephone poles will soon be cluttered with those empty shells, paper-thin, like shrimp peelings from a barbecue.
Soon there will be millions upon millions of periodical cicadas flying through the air, with their signature translucent wings and red eyes.
Insects, like other animals, have all sorts of ways of avoiding predators. The bright colors of the monarch butterfly are a signal that their wings are poisonous to eat. Hornets have their stingers. Stick insects blend into their surroundings.
The periodical cicada has developed a fairly unique safety-in-numbers approach to evolution. There are so many cicadas that, even after predators gorge on them, there are plenty left to lay eggs and reproduce.
The scientists call it “predator satiation.” It has guaranteed survival of this species.
“Imagine the world is swarming with Hershey’s kisses,” Kritsky says. “You will eat a lot of them. But, eventually, you will get tired of eating them.”
The demise of the periodical cicadas has been predicted for more than a century.
In a 1902 New York Times story about Brood X, we were warned of the coming “extermination” of cicadas because of the construction of roads and homes and golf courses that disturbed their habitat.
“Field after field about Washington has been plowed so deeply as to kill the entire brood which buried itself in that soil seventeen years ago,” the reporters wrote.
Yet there are some hints that this enchanting cycle could be endangered.
While cicadas are known for their enormous synchronous rise from beneath the soil, some cicadas don’t follow the 17-year plan. These stragglers may appear four years early or four years late.
Why they’re confused about time, scientists haven’t quite determined. It could be climate change — longer growing seasons mean heartier meals that may speed up growth. In many cases, these stragglers die off, caught in a Darwinian experiment where there aren’t enough to both be eaten and to reproduce.
That could also be changing. In 2000, Kritsky found that 17-year cicadas emerged four years early in Cincinnati in such large numbers that they were able to mate. Those cicadas emerged again in 2017 in even greater numbers than 17 years before. That’s when they were officially designated a new brood, Brood VI.
After all these years, there is so much we still don’t know about periodical cicadas.
“If I worked on fruit flies, I could have solved this in six months,” Kritsky says. “But these are bugs of history.”
Soon — another beginning
When Brood X cicadas emerge in May, they’ll be brand new to Jake.
In the years since the cicadas were here, I have learned how to be a mom, still joyous, still anxious, and Jake has learned to be my first born, my rule follower, his own charming person.
He has grown taller, shooting past me, his father, his stepfather. He has won ribbons on the cross-country team, varsity letters in track. He sports patchy whiskers and a deep voice. Our mailbox is overloaded with college brochures.
This teenager no longer fits in my arms or sits still for a hug. My excitement about the coming brood registers little more than an “Okay, mom,” when I can get him to listen at all.
All the while, I imagine those nearly 17-year-old nymphs underfoot, just waiting for their moment to arrive. And, for reasons even the experts still don’t fully understand, it will happen this spring. One generation over, another just beginning.