Life in the Age of the Periodical Cicadas (aka Great Eastern Brood X) and the Swarm of 2021

Postscript: The Great Eastern Brood X Cicadas are almost a thing of the past. There are a few here and there, still crazily flying into just about any structure thinking or hoping it is a tree. But for the most part, they have done what they came here to do and life is getting back to normal. When I wrote the below blog, it was at the beginning of the Swarm of 2021. Things got pretty intense as thousands of cicadas swarmed nearby trees and the sound of their mating call was the equivalent to that of jet engines. There were tall tales about cicada tattoos and cicada recipes but I did not hear about anyone actually doing either. The closest I got to a cicada recipe was when one landed in my breakfast smoothie and tried to swim to the top gripping the slice of lime in my glass. We survived the Swarm, and they will not be here again for 17 years. Thank goodness.

*****

I am asked by family and friends who do not live in Baltimore, what’s up with these cicadas we hear about, and what is it really like? It sounds pretty bad … is it? After a pause to think about these weighty questions, and then usually after an inward sigh and maybe a gulp or too, my answer is “no, it’s ok, they’re not that bad.” These cicadas are not around too long (about two months), and after Covid-19, one has a whole different perspective on life’s challenges and hard days. A swarm of insects that do not bite or sting is not the worst thing to happen to a person. I am glad these periodical cicadas did not make their appearance in 2020, that would have made last year harder. No doubt about that.

What I am not asked, because one might not think about these things unless one has experienced something similar, is what are the practicalities of living with these 17-year periodical cicadas? I mean, really, how does one share the garden and yard with these critters for up to eight weeks just as the summer planting season starts? What do you do when one (or five) stares straight back at you with their intense red eyes as they grip with legs seemingly made of super glue and steel to your precious tomato plants? How do you navigate between the discarded husks they have oh-so casually left behind, stuck to structures of all kinds including garden fences, hoses and even on your beloved plants themselves?! How do you remain staying cool, calm and collected when the cicadas fly into you or when you unknowingly bring them into the house as they attached themselves to your hat, clothes and boots while you were weeding? All very good questions. We are glad you asked. The answer is you get through this time the the best that you can. Like a lot of times in life you remind yourself that this too shall pass and you focus on the positive: (1) they are high in nitrogen and therefore good for your garden and yard; (2) they are following the same 17 year pattern as they have done for millions of year and this is an encouraging sign about the state of our ecosystem; and (3) they are not harmful to humans and you can almost convince yourself that when they fly they look like butterflies (ok, this one might be a stretch).

There has been a lot written about the 2021 Swarm of the Periodical Cicadas Brood X. In a nutshell, these insects live underground for 17 years when they emerge from holes in the ground that look like they were made with pencils, so straight, to shed their outer husks, mate and die. All in about two months. They leave their eggs in trees which eventually drop to the ground and then “hibernate” for the next 17 years where they live off of tree roots and create tunnels underground. These cicadas can cause significant damage to trees and, when possible, people use netting on their more delicate trees to protect them. This summer, hundreds of billions (that’s with a “b”) of cicadas will ascend from the dirt in the Eastern part of the USA, and Maryland will be one of the most heavily impacted states. These insects have been following this cycle for millions of years, and the USA is only one of three places in the world that has cicadas that reappear like this, so many years apart. The male cicadas create a sound unlike any other, it is their mating call. It gets louder as the weeks go by and the cicadas grow in number.

To read more about these delightful insects that we will not see again until 2038, some resources are: Prevention Magazine https://www.prevention.com/life/a32670585/what-is-cicada/; from CNN https://www.cnn.com/2021/05/23/world/cicadas-2021-emergence-scn/index.html; and the State of Maryland https://mda.maryland.gov/plants-pests/Pages/periodical-cicada.aspx#:~:text=In%20Maryland%2C%20Brood%20X%20will%20begin%20to%20emerge,mate%2C%20lay%20eggs%20in%20trees%2C%20and%20then%20die.

Happy gardening and may the periodical cicadas that swarm into your life only last a short time too.

Pixie, May 2021

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