Cherry blossoms may be the official, undisputed harbingers of spring in the region, but once every 17 years, the little pink blooms have to share the seasonal stage with a somewhat less photogenic rival: the red-eyed, yellow-winged Brood X cicada.
And the brood is almost ready for the spotlight.
“It’s just magical,” said biologist John Lill. “It’s a real phenomenon of nature.”
The Brood X cicadas have already begun to rise from their underground lairs, and people across 15 Northeastern states will soon have free tickets to swarms of ear-piercing performances.
The first sightings in the capital region were reported in late April, but experts are expecting the “major emergence” to begin within the next few days.
“In the D.C. area, you know, it should be in the billions,” said Mr. Lill, a biology professor at George Washington University. “Across the entire Brood X area, people have estimated, you know, over a trillion.”
Brood X, pronounced “Brood Ten,” is one of 15 groups of “periodical” cicadas that emerge en masse every 13 or 17 years.
When the temperature 8 inches beneath the surface reaches 64 degrees, that is their cue.
Young cicadas, called nymphs, will emerge in waves from the burrows, where they have been feeding on tree sap since 2004.
Because their bodies are soft, they make their first appearance at night in order to avoid predators, Mr. Lill said.
“It’s really crazy to see in the evening when you’re out there,” he said. “It looks like the ground is kind of moving [as] these crawling wonderful creatures are coming up.”
As soon as they crawl up to the surface, they climb to even higher ground so they can start the molting process, said Floyd Shockley, collections manager for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
The tunnels in the soil they leave behind are “something people pay a lot of money for,” Mr. Shockley told The Times on Wednesday.
“That’s basically biological aeration … that allows air and water to penetrate the soil far deeper than it could have on its own,” he said. “That’s really important for soil health.”
After molting, the adult cicadas are usually 1 to 2 inches long. They have red eyes, black bodies and long, sheer wings with a yellowish-orange tint.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said their colors remind him of the state flag, and he declared the months of May and June this year as “Magicicada Months.”
Adult males in search of mates will sing to attract females. Their chorus, which can reach up to 90 decibels, has “been likened to a rock concert or a jet engine,” Mr. Shockley said.
The bellowing bugs, he said, 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.”
Parts of the District, Maryland and southern Pennsylvania may have swarms as dense as 1.5 million per acre.
Once they mate, females will create small holes in trees, where they can lay up to 600 eggs.
They prefer small trees with narrow branches, so Mr. Shockley suggests placing mesh coverings over younger trees to protect them.
The eggs will hatch into nymphs a few weeks later and then burrow for the next 17 years.
The cicadas will be around for only up to six weeks. After that, their bodies will serve as a “critical nitrogen source” for the soil, Mr. Shockley said.
Both of the insect experts said the cicadas are harmless.
“These guys are so gentle and so easy to handle and, you know, they don’t bite, they don’t sting,” Mr. Shockley said.
Their bodies are not toxic to animals or humans, and the only real damage they can do is to young trees, he said.
Mr. Lill said there are “a lot of misleading headlines about invasions and, you know, plagues and biblical catastrophes and all kinds of stuff, and it’s just not at all what this is.
“We want people to marvel at this — not be afraid,” he said.