The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Of course this is the year of the cicadas, because nothing comes easy in D.C.

Cicadas will emerge across much of the D.C. area in May. (Kevin Ambrose)
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Of course this would be the year of the cicadas.

After the year that will forever be known as “hashtag 2020,” and a 2021 that began with an actual insurrection at the Capitol, of course the 17-year cicadas would be poised to emerge just as we’re starting to see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. Between a once-in-a-century virus and an attack on democracy itself, you could be forgiven if the impending return of the Brood X cicadas slipped under your radar.

The cicadas are coming. Rising temperatures and thawing soils portend insect explosion.

For those who don’t remember, purposely forgot, or weren’t in the D.C. area — the epicenter of Brood X, also known as the Great Eastern Brood — the last time we were paid a visit by these harmless but raucous, red-eyed pests with cellophane-like wings, here’s a scene-setter from a March 2004 story in The Washington Post, several weeks before that year’s emergence:

One day, 17 years ago, Elizabeth Kraft walked around the garage at her Takoma Park home. She felt the presence of things in the trees, unusual things. They were insects, with black bodies and red eyes and delicate amber-veined wings, and there were far too many to count.

She looked around. “It was like an Alfred Hitchcock movie,” she says of the day the cicadas emerged. “They were on the sidewalk, on the trees, on the porch, on the street.” It was, she says, “very intense.”

Judith Bowes, who lived in Chevy Chase in 1987, remembers the insects' buzzing, clicking, thrumming roar. “The enormity of it is just overwhelming,” she says.

After 17 years underground, three species of the Brood X cicadas will emerge this spring on the East Coast. Here's everything you need to know. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

And so here we are, on the cusp of the return of Brood X. The timeline, according to an email from University of Maryland entomology professor and all-around cicada guru Mike Raupp, is most likely as follows: “Early risers will appear as early as the third week of April and continue emerging into the second week of June. They will peak the last two weeks of May but will be present singing in the treetops, mating, and laying eggs into mid-June.”

That the return of Brood X coincides with a global pandemic is purely coincidence. Yet it’s not surprising given our tendency to do things the hard way in D.C., where we often can’t seem to find the easy button.

Cicadas are expected to appear in tremendous numbers across D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia in the spring of 2021. They have lived underground since 2004. (Video: Kevin Ambrose)

Take the winter of “Snowmageddon,” for example. During some winters, D.C. can barely buy an inch of snow. In the winter of 2009-2010, however, the snow came not in inches but in feet — more than 4.5 feet when all was said and done, or 56.1 inches to be exact. By the end of what would be D.C.’s snowiest winter on record, even snow lovers were crying “uncle.”

Then there’s the double-whammy of the D.C. derecho and record heat wave in late June and early July 2012. As if the widespread damage and destruction from one of the worst storms in D.C. history wasn’t enough, it was followed by nine consecutive days reaching 95 degrees or higher, which only exacerbated the misery of the widespread multiday power outages and no air conditioning.

And then there’s our professional sports teams.

The Washington Capitals certainly did it the hard way, finally winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 2018, after 44 years full of regular season success but the most frustrating, excruciating postseason losses imaginable.

We waited only 14 years for the Washington Nationals to win a World Series in 2019. But that was after four heartbreaking first-round playoff exits, and required coming back from a dismal 19-31 start to the season and five come-from-behind playoff victories in elimination games.

Winning a sports championship is trivial compared to defeating a virus that has killed more than 19,000 in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, and more than 535,000 nationwide. Yet there are parallels between the grind of a title run and the challenging path to victory over the virus — both require overcoming adversity and various twists and turns along the way.

And so it’s only fitting that this would be the spring of the 17-year periodical cicadas, presenting yet another obstacle just as the pandemic homestretch comes into sight. Not everyone sees them as a nuisance, though, despite their collective buzz that can approach 100 decibels (the volume of a lawn mower or chain saw). Raupp, for one, pushed back when I referred to the coming Brood X emergence as a cicada “outbreak.”

“It is not really an outbreak,” he said. “This is a unique and spectacular natural phenomenon that happens nowhere else on planet Earth. It is my advice to get out and enjoy this to the fullest, just as you would if Halley’s comet was paying us a visit.”

Brood X cicadas are about to put on one of the wildest shows in nature. And D.C. is the main stage.

What about cicadas and covid-19? I asked Raupp if there’s any chance they could catch or transmit the virus, because after the past year, there are no silly questions. Raupp’s answer was reassuring: “I have never heard of an airborne human respiratory virus being transmitted by insects. Remember, these guys have been underground for 17 years and have had no contact that we know of with covid, which is aboveground.”

Thinking more about Raupp’s enthusiasm for the cicadas, there was one statistic that caught my attention in particular: Raupp estimates that at peak emergence, a few hundred thousand chorusing cicadas will be within earshot at any given time.

Here’s a thought, which some might find kind of silly, but I find strangely comforting. What if we imagine that the constant roar of the cicadas represents the hundreds of thousands of people who we’ve lost during this pandemic. For me, I’ll think of my mom and dad. For others it could be a spouse, a parent, a grandparent, a sister, a brother, an aunt, an uncle, a cousin or a friend.

It would be foolish to think such a tribute could lessen the pain of such tragic loss. But perhaps if we view the piercing hum of the cicadas as a living memorial to the fallen, rather than yet another hurdle between us and the end of the pandemic, then maybe we can appreciate the natural wonder of the cicadas more like Raupp.

And when they’re gone? Let’s hope it’s the last plague we see for another 17 years.