- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Hear that? You won’t in about a month, when billions of cicadas crawl up from underground lairs and unleash a chorus of chirruping that can rival the roar of a Harley-Davidson Low Rider.

“If you catch a really dense population, the sound could be quite startling,” said insect expert Floyd Shockley. “It’s been likened to a rock concert or a jet engine.”

Masses of the world’s loudest insect will soon put on a performance that has been 17 years in the making: a collection of bugs known as “Brood X.”

“We’re going to come close to, if not eclipse, a trillion cicadas,” said Mr. Shockley, collections manager for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Brood X is one of 15 groups of “periodical” cicadas that lurk beneath the soil and feed on tree sap until they emerge en masse every 13 or 17 years.

Once weather conditions are just right, portions of 15 Northeastern states will be abuzz with a cacophony from males in search of mates. The show may go on for up to six weeks.

“They’re waiting for the temperature 8 inches below ground to reach 64 degrees,” Mr. Shockley said.

Their droning will be heard across “most of the mid-Atlantic, as far north as New York, as far south as Georgia and as far west as Illinois,” he said.

The bugs emerge in waves. Males typically make the first appearance aboveground. The uprising is expected to begin within the next couple of weeks, and Mr. Shockley expects it to be underway by early May.

Certain regions will have larger concentrations of cicadas than others, including areas in the Ohio Valley extending into eastern Illinois, as well as eastern Tennessee and Northern Virginia, he said.

Parts of the District, Maryland and southern Pennsylvania are expected to have swarms as dense as 1.5 million per acre.

Gaye Williams, a pest identification expert for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said the cicadas will be everywhere in the Baltimore-Washington area.

“This is not something to be feared. … They have nothing to do with the apocalypse,” Ms. Williams said. “They’re a phenomenon that is unlike anything else, and it’s unique to the Eastern United States.”

Brood X consists of three cicada species that can be identified most easily by their unique songs, Mr. Shockley said.

Young cicadas, called nymphs, “have a 98% mortality rate over their first two years underground, meaning the ones we are going to see this year in the Washington metropolitan area represent only 2% of those that hatched 17 years ago,” he said.

Nymphs’ bodies are soft, which puts them in a vulnerable state when they reach the surface. To avoid predators, they will search for higher ground. Ms. Williams likened the spectacle to “a walking army.”

As soon as the nymphs retreat to safe spots, they will begin the molting process, which can last five to six hours.

“You’ll immediately notice all of the shells hanging off of everything — trees, houses [and] sheds,” Mr. Shockley said. “And then they’ll begin their calls about a week after they emerge, so we won’t really notice the sound until about the time the females are starting to emerge.”

Adult cicadas are usually 1 to 2 inches long and have red eyes, black bodies and long, clear wings with a yellowish-orange tint.

“This is an animal that is way cool. If you stop for a few minutes and look at them, they’re really pretty. They basically have the Maryland state flag colors,” said Ms. Williams, adding that cicadas’ nutrient-rich shells can be used in compost piles.

The males will court mates with their high-decibel songs from about 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., Mr. Shockley said.

Females will create small holes in trees, where they can lay up to 600 eggs. The eggs hatch into nymphs, which will burrow for the next 17 years.

They prefer laying eggs in small trees with narrow branches, Ms. Williams said, but mesh covering can protect the trees. She suggested waiting to plant saplings until the cicadas are gone.

Mr. Shockley said that is the “only real damage” cicadas can do and people should not be scared of them.

“These are totally harmless to humans. They’re not going to harm pets, they don’t bite, they are no threat to animals,” he said. “This is not something scary. This is something amazing that we get to be here for.”

• Emily Zantow can be reached at ezantow@washingtontimes.com.

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