The Cicadas are Here!

Posted on May 13, 2013

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We East Coast residents have been hearing the warnings for some days now:  a brood of 17-year cicadas (Magicicadas) is due to arrive at any moment!   Prepare to be overwhelmed!

Well, Saturday afternoon I saw the first heralds of the brood, at least the ones who have been lurking beneath Lila’s lawn for nearly two decades.

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Lila’s first cicada of the season.

It’s really something to think about!  When these little bugs were hatched and burrowed underground, the World Trade Center still stood, Bill Clinton was in office, Justin Bieber was probably still in diapers, Michelle Kwan was racking up a passel of gold medals, and NATO had peacekeeping troops in Bosnia.  And all the while since then, these little guys were here, just waiting for us to move in so we could witness this day.

Okay, they weren’t actually waiting for us.  They were waiting for Saturday, when the ground temperature apparently reached 64°F, and now they get to fly forth in search of mates, in one big frenetic burst of activity.  This will last several weeks, and then – having mated and laid their eggs – they will die, and things will be quiet again for a while.

There are actually a dozen different broods around the country; here in the DC area, we have Brood II (among others).  No cicadas for you this year?  Fear not!  If you’re in the eastern half of the U.S., just consult this handy chart to see when you can expect your local brood to burst forth and entertain you… or gross you out, depending on your feelings about largish, red-eyed insects everywhere, thundering in the trees at night.

If the brood is as huge as predicted, I’m sure I’ll be ready for them to go back underground in a couple of weeks.  But if the Brood X experience of 2004 is any guide, the swarms might not be as dramatic as expected.  We were in a different home in the DC area at the time, and there certainly did seem to be a lot of nymphs emerging all at once… at first.  But the predicted swarms never materialized.  The reason?  Development!

One good illustration of just how enormously the Washington area has expanded is to look at aeronautical charts.  For pilots flying by visual rules, populated areas are shaded in yellow in the same actual shape that the pilot will see lighted up at night.  Here is the Washington chart from 1950:

Courtesy NOAA

Courtesy NOAA

Here is the same area from the 2012 chart.  You can see that the previously very limited yellow area has bloated to fill practically the entire area.  This is what is lit up at night today, and of course that all represents former fields and forests that are now suburbs, highways and shopping centers (and a new airport:  Dulles did not exist in 1950).  Obviously, churning up the ground for construction purposes wipes out the underground cicada nymphs, and there has been an awful lot of that going on around here in the last 60-odd years, as these charts show us.

WashSec-2012

So I’m rooting for Brood X, which was not spectacular but still hanging in there in 2004, and now – for Brood II.  Bring ’em on!

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