Although oft-compared to the Biblical plague, periodical cicadas are not locusts. (If you’re wondering, locusts are a type of grasshopper.)
The large, winged bugs with beady red eyes grow underground by sucking on tree roots for either 13 or 17 years, before emerging in spectacular numbers to mate and lay eggs in the treetops.
First, juvenile cicadas, or nymphs, climb out of the ground and attach themselves to trees, fence posts, signs and just about anything they can find to do their final molt. Conveniently enough, they leave behind their shells, meaning there will be thousands of crispy, creepy exoskeletons littered around the outdoors.
Then, they’ll start seeking their mates, and that’s when the singing begins. At the end of their life cycle, female cicadas will lay eggs inside tree branches, which will hatch and head back for the soil for another 17-year incubation.
There are several different broods of the bugs across the United States. Brood X, which has been underground in the Eastern U.S. since 2004, is the biggest in this area. They’re ready for their day in the sun, and Maryland is right at the epicenter of it all.
When will they come out and how long will they be here?
Cicadas rise once the soil reaches 64 degrees. Small amounts already have started to trickle out, but their emergence likely won’t pick up until mid-May. In 2004, they started to emerge en masse in the Baltimore area around May 11, according to Sun archives.
They’ll remain for four to six weeks, and then they’ll die off, leaving behind the next generation.
Will they be ... everywhere?
Pretty much. In addition to Maryland, a center for this emergence, the cicadas are expected to come out in Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
Their distribution could be patchy, especially if your area doesn’t have many trees. And they won’t appear on the Eastern Shore, so if you’re feeling nervous, late May or early June might be the perfect time to take a beach trip.
But if cicadas do hit your area, you can expect to find some shells or bugs on your car, all over your yard — the works.
Luckily, they don’t sting, bite or carry diseases, so removing them from surfaces shouldn’t be too much of a challenge. You don’t really need to remove their shells from your yard, as they’ll decompose and fertilize nearby plants. You can add their shells to the compost pile if you’ve got one.
How loud are they really?
Cicadas are perhaps most famous for their droning buzz, capable of dominating a summer evening the way a neighbor’s lawn mowing might. When they gather in large numbers, their sound can reach 100 decibels, the same as a jet flying overhead at 1,000 feet.
Male cicadas produce their song using an organ called a tymbal, which vibrates rapidly to create sound. Up close, you also may hear males and females flick their wings to communicate.
They’ll sing throughout the day, and usually they’ll stop after dusk.
Cicadas don’t eat plants, so they’re unlikely to cause much damage to leaves or flowers. But female cicadas do lay their eggs by scoring holes in thin tree branches. On larger trees, the practice doesn’t have much of an impact, but on smaller ones, it can cause a phenomenon called flagging, when the tips of branches wilt or die.
The No. 1 Rule? Avoid using insecticides. It’s unlikely to ward off the cicadas (some areas could have as many as 1.5 million per acre) and it will kill other bugs in the process, including bees and butterflies.
The most effective way to prevent damage is to enclose young trees with half-inch mesh netting. Any bigger and the cicadas will be able to climb through. Experts recommend waiting until mid-May, when the cicadas start to emerge in earnest, before installing nets, so you don’t hamper growth. Try to check for any birds or nests before you begin, so you don’t trap them inside.
What about my pets?
Cicadas emerge all at once because there’s strength in numbers. Predators fill their bellies with bugs day after day, and yet thousands more cicadas remain to carry on their species. Dogs and cats may want to get in on the smorgasbord.
Experts say you should stop your pets from feasting if you can, but one or two bugs shouldn’t hurt. Eating cicadas can cause stomach issues for pets (think vomiting and diarrhea) since the cicadas’ exoskeletons are difficult to digest.
Can I help track the cicada emergence?
There’s an app for that. Several, actually. Experts at the Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati created an application called “Cicada Safari” meant to collect cicada reports from the public. Popular nature app iNaturalist is also likely to feature cicada sightings in the region.
Researchers are keeping a close eye on this year’s emergence, not least because it’s been 17 years since last time. There are also concerns about how climate change and urbanization may be impacting cicada populations.
Some members of Brood X have emerged early, including thousands in 2017, and experts worried that climate change could be fouling the insects’ internal clocks.
I heard you can eat them?
You sure can. There are, of course, a few things to keep in mind. It’s best to pick them right after they emerge as nymphs, before they develop their hard shells. To kill them, you can either cook them immediately or freeze them.
And keep in mind where you pick from. Cicadas living beneath areas where fertilizers and pesticides have been used may have absorbed some of those chemicals. And if you’re allergic to shrimp or prawns, you should probably steer clear, since cicada exoskeletons can contain the same allergen. Cicadas are, however, gluten free, since they don’t feed on wheat. If you have allergies, it’s recommended you check with your doctor before chowing down.
You can pop them in the oven at 350 degrees until they start to dry and brown. You can also boil them, or bread and fry them, and dip them in any number of sauces. They can be tossed in a hot sugary mixture to create candy, dipped in chocolate, and when roasted, they take on a nutty flavor. You can add them to soups, tacos, stir fries, pizzas. Looking for ideas? Check out a cicada cookbook written by University of Maryland grads: “Cicada-Licious” came out in 2004.