What did you say? Those rugs are enjoying? I really can’t hear you over the cicadas! This daily conversation marks the emergence of Brood X, a generation of periodical cicadas that’s been feeding and growing underground since 2004. Once the ground temperature reached a toasty 64 degrees, they started pouring out from their holes by the billions. With 17 years’ worth of pent-up energy, they’re looking to get busy.
Brood X comprises three species of cicada that are characterized by large black bodies, dark red eyes, and a signature ear-splitting rattle. The sound—or “song” if you’re an entomologist—is a mating call from the males. To humans, the sound is piercing, annoying, and sometimes anxiety-inducing; to cicadas, it’s an invitation. Females respond by snapping with their wings, which attracts a swarm of males toward them.
While you may not be ecstatic to be surrounded by these loud, invasive bugs, cicadas are fine ignoring you and pretty much everything else. Due to their large numbers, predators simply can’t eat them all—though cicada years are bountiful for a lot of animals, from turkeys and chickens to songbirds, opossums, and raccoons. “Scientists will note a population boom in other animals because they’re so well fed,” says Sarah Kent, a community outreach manager at Great Parks of Hamilton County. She adds that after the last 17-year cycle, “Cincinnati had a really booming rat population.”
Critters aren’t the only ones who benefit from the cicadas’ presence. Periodical cicadas spend most of their lives buried roughly a foot underground, where they feed on the roots of trees until ready for mating season. After emerging, they leave behind tunnels that lead back down to tree roots, directing rainwater in and acting as natural aeration. Female cicadas lay eggs in twigs and small branches that eventually break off, providing trees with a free pruning.
Greater ecosystem benefits aside, the bugs are certainly going to freak out a lot of people. Gene Kritsky, an entomologist at Mount St. Joseph University and the region’s resident cicada expert, offers consoling words: “They don’t spread disease, they won’t carry away your children, they don’t bite, and they don’t sting. If your dog loves gulping down food and doesn’t know when to stop, limit their access to the bugs, because too many cicadas could lead to bowel obstruction.” Other than that, cicadas are harmless, so don’t run from them. In fact, Kritsky wants you to run toward them—for science, of course.
He’s been crowd-sourcing research on Brood X for decades, which is one of the most efficient ways to collect a lot of data on them. He started in 1987 with a cicada hotline and, he says, “calls came in so fast it broke my answering machine.” He continued in 2004 with the technological advancement of e-mail, and on the first day of the emergence he received an e-mail a minute. Now he’s created a free mobile app, Cicada Safari, which turns everyday people into citizen scientists. If you encounter a periodical cicada out and about, snap a picture on the app and log it for scientists to study. “We need more boots on the ground,” Kritsky says, “and that’s what the app is doing.” The data collected will help create more detailed maps of Brood X and will also contribute to a hypothesis he’s testing with colleagues about how cicadas know which year to emerge.
Brood X’s emergence is a rare event that comes around just once in a generation, and this year is vital for collecting data and learning more about them. Scientists have been studying them for nearly 200 years and still don’t really know why they break ground when they do. So now that cicadas are finally out in full force, pick up your phone, download Kritsky’s app, and start chasing some bugs. You heard me!