One bright sunny morning, you awaken from a restful night’s sleep to the sounds of cicadas. Their soft, distant whir is a normal prelude to your day, a dependable background noise reminiscent of long, lazy summer days. Still, something about today’s particular buzzing causes you to pause. The droning grows louder as you eat breakfast, reverberating throughout your home. Perturbed, you continue on with your routine.
When you are ready, you open the door and proceed to step outside. Your breath catches. Icy shivers race down your spine. Heartbeat beating fast, you stand transfixed as a seething mass of black and orange greets you. An ocean of bulging, fiery red eyes and spindly legs undulate below your feet. Up above, swarms of cicadas careen wildly through the air. Stunned, you watch as they overtake trees, fence posts, picnic tables, and anything else they can grab on to.
Shaking off the stupor, you grit your teeth and make a mad dash to your car. You swat away at the insects coating your windshield, growing more frantic as others take their place. On the verge of tears, you hurriedly brush off the bugs clinging to your hair and shoulders. You then bend down to pry off the ones climbing up your pant leg. It is when you straighten and finally reach for the car door that you make the critical mistake. You glance up.
As if in slow motion, you see the large specimen beelining toward you, eyes aflame. By now, you realize it is too late. You barely have time to register its grotesque features before you feel the slap of its juicy body against your face.
Brood X has arrived.
I hope you enjoyed my short flash fiction! Brood X was not nearly as intense as that, nonetheless, it was an exceptionally unsettling experience. In this blog post, I take a look at what Brood X was, why it was so novel, and share few pictures Mark and I took from our nearby walking path.
What is Brood X?
Last May, the United States was given a mystifying gift from nature: the mass emergence of a species of cicada that surfaces only once every seventeen years. Living in Maryland, our location gave us a prime position to witness this spectacle that stretched from the East Coast to parts of the Midwest.
Despite the near constant media coverage, we were unprepared for the sheer abundance of these special cicadas. As my husband Mark aptly put it, whether we wanted it or not, Brood X allowed us to “enjoy nature’s bountiful grossness.”
According to the Washington Post, Brood X is actually pronounced Brood 10 because the cicada broods are categorized by Roman numerals. Three of the broods pop up every 13 years and another 12 (this Brood X) every 17 years.
Moreover, these periodical cicadas look vastly different from your normal garden variety. The ones we are used to seeing annually are green in color whereas the fully mature Brood X Cicadas have thick, black bodies, bulbous fire-engine red to orange eyes, and thin orange legs and wing veins.
The Circle of Life
Seventeen years ago, when the last batch of Brood X laid their eggs up high. Their baby nymphs hatched and dropped to the ground. They then burrowed into the soil to gorge on plant fluids (xylem). As adults, they will eat tree sap, not crops or garden plants as many worried about!
Sixteen years later, these same nymphs tunnel upwards, to lie in wait about four to six inches below the surface. It would be another year before they would dramatically burst forth from the ground in the trillions.
Upon clawing their way out of the bowels of the earth, these one to two-inch brown cicadas instinctively keep climbing upwards. To them, anything vertical is fair play and onwards they ascend.
After about an hour, the cicadas crack open their shells and squeeze their way out. Their bodies at this point are mostly white with yellow tinted wings and two black marks above their eyes that look like chonky eyebrows:
Next, the cicadas’ exoskeletons darken and harden over the following five days. They reach their final stage once their head and midsection turn fully black in color.
The amount of time these cicadas spend above ground is significantly shorter than their time below. Once freed from their shell, male cicadas call to the females to mate. While the males die about three to four weeks later, female cicadas will lay up to 600 eggs each before dying as well!
I Love you Like a Love Song, Baby
Seeing as I could not upload my videos to WordPress, I recommend a quick search online for those wanting to jam to the cicada’s rhythm divine.
Connect those tunes with the following photos from Mark and me, and you will get somewhat of an idea of what we experienced.
For the Greater Good
“You sacrifice the few to save the many”Joel Osteen
Brood X’s mass emergence is an admirable evolutionary safety mechanism. Simply put, the more cicadas there are, the less likely predators are able to eat all of them, thus allowing the surviving cicadas to propagate and continue their race. The predators of Brood X are numerous and include many animals and other bugs, such as birds, rodents, spiders, snakes, lizards, fish, opossums, raccoons, domestic pets, and even humans!
A google search for cicada recipes goes to show there are some creative foodies out there. Be aware that anyone with shellfish allergies should not partake in this feast.
An aside: these bugs brought back strong flashbacks of when I lived in Lishui, Zhejiang, China (pictured above). It the September of 2017, at my first important dinner as a school faculty member, that I was unexpectedly served cicadas. My colleagues thought it hilarious when they saw me gasp, and they stared in anticipation as I attempted to bravely chew and swallow them. No one had bothered to tell me that I was supposed to spit out the shells, and I didn’t find out until I watched everyone else eat them. No, I am not at all still salty about it.
Be Our Guest? Please Don’t.
A downside of having so much available food for the cicada’s predators is the resulting population boom in unwanted pests. News outlets had warned about possible increases in rat and bird populations following the arrival of Brood X. Mark and I personally saw an uptick in the numbers of various spiders on our walking path, to my great dismay. This sentiment is reflected in the photo below from my Instagram story:
Beneath the happy Brood X orgy lies a serious issue affecting the species: a deadly fungus spreading amongst their ranks! This information was first brought to the public’s attention via viral posts on Instagram that claimed the disease was causing cicadas’ rear-ends to fall off and male cicadas to mate with other males, further spreading the fungus.
Numerous scientific studies have affirmed this fungal pathogen, Massospora cicadina, does indeed cause infected Brood X and the other 13-year periodic cicadas to be more hyperactive and eager to mate. Infected male cicadas do behave more like females, leading other males to try to mate with them.
Within a week of a healthy cicada becoming contaminated, its abdomen begins to fall off. These fallen bits reveal a “white chalky mass,” also called a plug. The plug is what releases the spores that lead to infertility and death.
Sensual relations are not the only way the disease spreads, however. Contaminated cicadas, nicknamed the “flying saltshakers of death” transmit the contagion with a simple flick of their wing. This causes some cicadas to be infected right out of the ground during their brown shell stage. Nature, am I right?
“They will drive you out of the woods by causing deafness and trying to fly up your nose.”R. Melvin Poole, Maryland Mushrooms and Mycology Facebook Group
Some have described Brood X as an invasion, to others it was a miracle. Either way you look at it, the emergence of these cicadas was a truly unique experience for all.
I am just thankful that Brood X will not return for another 17 years!
Until next time,
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Cooley, John R., David C. Marshall $ Kathy B.R. Hill (2018, January 23). A specialized fungal parasite (Massospora cicadina) hijacks the sexual signals of periodical cicadas (Hemiptera: Cicadidae: Magicicada). Scientific Reports. Retrieved October 28, 2021, from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-19813-0.pdf
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