How to Survive Our Wet, Hot, Cicada Summer

Billions of cicadas are about to blanket the Northeastern United States for the first time since 'Shrek 2' hit theatres. Here's how to survive and thrive.
March 17, 2021, 5:54pm
How to Prepare for the Summer’s Cicada Takeover
Image: Cicada Safari

This summer will (hopefully) welcome not only widespread vaccination for COVID-19 but will also mark  the return of a once-in-a-generation event that hasn’t been witnessed since Shrek 2 hit cinema screens nationwide: the hatching of periodical cicada Brood X.

Like many-limbed zombies emerging from the soil, billions of cicadas will arrive across the Northeastern United States in mid-May after 17 years of nibbling on tree root nutrients underground. As one of the largest periodical cicada broods, not to be confused with the more common annual cicadas, Brood X will be making their debut this summer all the way from Georgia up through Illinois, with the DC metro area being particularly abundant. 

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“Humans who live here have been experiencing [these cicadas] for many, many generations,” Jessica Ware, assistant curator in the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Invertebrate Zoology, told Motherboard. “[This is] just one step in a long arc of human history that cicadas have punctuated.”

According to Gene Kritsky, Dean of Mount St. Joseph University’s school of Behavioral and Natural Sciences and author of the new book Periodical Cicadas: The Brood X Edition, some of the first recorded sightings of Brood X can be traced back to the 1700s in Philadelphia. They have also been historically observed by native peoples for even longer.

But what can you expect from the brood’s emergence in 2021? Here’s what the experts have to say.

When will the Brood X cicadas emerge?

Kritsky says that these patient insects will begin making their way out of the ground in yards, parks, and even cemeteries as soon as soil temperature warms to 64 degrees Fahrenheit, which can happen after the first few 80 degree days. Typically, that’s around mid-May to early June. 

Still not quite at their final stage of maturity, these cicadas will shed a protective shell and flee to tree tops while their exoskeleton undergoes its final hardening process. After that, it’s time to mate. 

What will it be like when the cicadas emerge this summer?

Cicadas are not too picky about where they get it on and during their several week mating season may look like a blanket covering lawns and trees. These adult cicadas can be recognized by their bright red eyes and stained glass-like wings, as well as their impressively loud mating call, or chirp.

Ware says that these calls, which the cicadas use to find new mates, can reach up to 100 decibels—that’s close to the same sound level produced by a jackhammer or power lawn mower. Luckily for us, Ware says cicadas tend to be loudest during the warmest part of the day, meaning people living in cicada inundated cities can still probably get a good night’s sleep.

What do I need to do to survive and thrive alongside Brood X?

By the end of summer, these new Brood X offspring will fall to the ground and make their way back into the soil for another 17-years.

This onslaught of cicadas may look and sound intimidating, but Ware and Kritsky say there’s nothing to fear from these cicadas: they don’t want to come into your house and they will not bite or sting you. That being said, there are a couple things to be aware of:

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Wear protection: Cicadas hang out on trees, and pose the same risk to passersby as your average flock of birds. In other words, they need to relieve themselves occasionally, and they might just do it all over you. Wear a hat. 

Get ready to clean up after them: After a successful mating season, the female cicadas will embed their eggs into the bark of trees before dying. This collection of cicada carcasses can become so dense that it needs to be shoveled away, said Ware. They tend to stink as they pile up around trees or on porches, so you should have the tools and a plan to remove them.

Keep your green thumb flexible: Ware recommends holding off  on planting any saplings at the beginning of the hatch (though by July it should be safe.). If you don’t get any cicadas after the first week of June, it’s probably safe to start then, too, according to cicadamania.com. This is because cicadas lay eggs on trees and this can damage more fragile saplings. Your flowers are safe, however. 

Get involved: Kritsky said that apps like Cicada Safari, which was designed by his university, are a great way to get involved this summer. Using this app, adults and children alike can snap photos or record videos of cicadas to help scientists collect data of their prevalence in different areas. Kritsky says that as the brood emerges people can even watch it “live” on the app.

Marveling at this natural phenomena can also be a bonding experience across generations, says Ware, who after viewing her first cicada hatching in 2004 is now excited to experience this year’s with her children. And if you’re looking to tie the knot, Kritsky says this summer is the perfect opportunity.

“I do try to convince people that there’s nothing more romantic than a cicada wedding,” says Kritsky. “It will be the first anniversary that will be just like your wedding day.”