We should not fear the 17-year cicadas

Kai Hagen

April 22, 2004

The cicadas are coming! The cicadas are coming!

Ready or not, here they come. Like it or not, here they come.

At the risk of alienating a few friends and acquaintances, I have to admit I'm really looking forward to it. Truth is, I've been looking forward to it for 17 years. Not that I've given it much brain space over the years, mind you. I realize saying so might cause some folks to speculate about my sanity. Fortunately, however, it's probably not sufficient cause to have me committed.

There's no doubt the sudden emergence of millions, make that billions, of large bugs, crawling and climbing and clinging on everything, flying erratically into windows and cars and people, and filling the air for days and nights with what may the loudest sustained cacophony nature has to offer, is not something everyone anticipates happily.

They disrupt of our normal routine, wreak havoc on unfortunately timed picnics, graduations and outdoor weddings, and inflict a little damage on some small trees. Then, like leaves in autumn, they leave a mess when the excitement is over. The whole event can be inconvenient.

But what is alternately referred to in so many news articles as an invasion, or an infestation, is, for me anyway, a relatively rare and exciting event not to be missed. A real natural wonder.

Cicadas are around every year, of course, and the usual buzz is part and parcel of the dog days and nights of late summer. Except for the familiar soundtrack, the plentiful cicadas would barely be noticed most years, even though there are hundreds of species of these abundant, standard-issue cicadas, and they are found around much of the planet.

The eastern United States, however, is also home to a unique genus, or set of species, known as periodical cicadas, whose members spend years living underground, emerging at the end of their quiet, subterranean lives in a brief but wild and noisy frenzy of mating and egg-laying.

Other periodical cicadas emerge here or there at more frequent intervals, and, notably, mostly in smaller numbers. But the 17-year cicada, also known as Brood X (for 10) or the "Big Brood," is the most significant numerically and geographically.

It's in a class by itself.

And Frederick County just happens to be is smack dab in the middle of prime Brood X territory. We've got front row seats for one of the biggest bug shows anywhere.

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em!

Or, perhaps more aptly, if you don't have a vacation timed just right, and you don't want to spend all your time hiding indoors, you might as well enjoy the show.

Some time in the next few weeks, sooner than later if the weather is warmer, the soil temperatures will reach 64 degrees, a good rain will soak the ground, and the cicada nymphs will head topside. They'll climb up anything available, being just as satisfied with the side of your house as an oak tree, and anchor themselves. During the night, the nymphal skin will split down the middle, and the adults will appear everywhere.

And then, a few days later, the chorus, if I may describe it that way, will begin.

Once the singing stops, or, if you prefer, once the roaring buzz stops, and the cicadas aren't flying around helter skelter anymore, we'll stop paying attention. But the billions that survive cars and kids and birds will lay eggs. And the billions of eggs that survive parasitic wasps and flies and predatory mites, will hatch a few weeks later, fall to the ground, burrow into the soil and settle in for the long wait.

For the next 16 years, Brood X will be cozy underground, growing and passing through five juvenile stages, sucking on tree roots beneath our feet. Waiting.

This year's emergence of Brood X is only the third of my lifetime. I was 12 the first time. This year, our oldest son is 12, and it will be his first time. We're both looking forward to it. If I'm fortunate, I'll have a chance to experience the marvel of Brood X two, maybe even three more times. In more ways than one, we should all be so lucky.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at