Get ready, Maryland: The 17-year Brood X cicadas are coming in May

Of course, this is the year the cicadas are coming.

A pandemic, then an eruption of insects. It just makes perfect sense.


But scientists are rejoicing over the once-every-17-years event — the arrival of the region’s largest brood of cicadas.

The winged, finger-sized singers, part of a group called Brood X or Brood Ten, will be hard to miss. Trees, fence posts, signs and cars will all host plenty of cicadas, whose calls can approach 100 decibels — the intensity of a lawn mower.


“This is like having a National Geographic special in your backyard,” said Mike Raupp, an entomology professor at the University of Maryland.

Millions of cicadas are likely to rise from the ground around mid- to late May and stick around for four to six weeks. During that time, they’ll breed and leave behind the next generation, which will surface en masse in 2038.

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, Raupp said.

In the beginning, cicada nymphs will dig to the surface, leaving behind small pockmarks in the grass. Then, the fascinating insects will settle on perches of all kinds to do their final molt, leaving behind their adolescent shells.

Particularly at dawn and dusk, much of Maryland — generally with the exception of the Eastern Shore — won’t be able to avoid hearing male cicadas singing from the trees to attract their mates. Afterward, females will lay eggs on the pencil-sized twigs of trees and bushes, before the 17-year cicadas die off.

It’s a Romeo and Juliet-esque teenage love story, Raupp says.

“These things have been living a dismal life, if you can imagine sucking on the roots of plants for 17 years,” Raupp said. “And then you get up and out. You’re 17 years old, it’s your day in the sunshine ... You’re gonna sing your hearts out, court, mate, they’re gonna lay eggs and then everybody’s gonna die and that’s the end.”

In 2004, the last time Brood X made its appearance, cicadas started to emerge in the area May 11, according to The Baltimore Sun’s archives. They rise once the soil 8 inches deep reaches 64 degrees, experts say, and are often triggered by a warm rain.


By early June 2004, the Sun reported that their “love-chorus,” a “shrill rasping like a million angry rattlesnakes,” was waning.

Their progeny will emerge into a wholly changed world. Four presidential terms, 20 iPhone models and heaping handfuls of history have passed while the fledgling cicadas grew underground, feeding on nutrients in tree roots.

This time, complaints (or exultations) about their piercing cries will pepper Twitter and Facebook, and scientists will track them perhaps with more accuracy than ever before.

“Rather than have a handful of people like myself running around and trying to collect data from Georgia to New York, now we can enlist thousands of citizen scientists to generate the large data set,” Raupp said.

That will be especially important as scientists try to gauge the impact of climate change and land development on the unique insects, Raupp said.

In 2017, early-rising cicadas in the Baltimore area drew concern, as scientists wondered whether rising temperatures could be confounding the creatures’ biological clocks.


Scientists will use smartphone apps like “Cicada Safari,” created by researchers at the Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, to collect cicada reports from the public, he said, and learn more about the places they emerge and gather.

If there’s a bright spot to be found amid the pandemic-cicada combo, it’s that the pests aren’t harmful to humans, said Emily Zobel, an agriculture faculty extension assistant at the University of Maryland. They don’t swarm and they don’t bite, although the shells they leave behind are a frequent source of consternation.

“If you’re handling them, their feet might get stuck on you and stuff, but they’re not going to cause any harm,” Zobel said. “They are not going to harm your pets either.”

They’re not exactly good for cats and dogs, though, Zobel said.

“I had a dog last time and she used to go out and scarf them down,” Zobel said. “My mom used to go out and run after her and be like: ‘Spit that out,’ because they’re not necessarily the best thing for your pet. But if your pet happens to scarf one or two down, it’s not the end of the world.”

Marylanders also may want to cover younger trees and other vulnerable plants with thin branches with protective netting so that females don’t cover them with eggs, Zobel said.


The eggs can cut off plants’ circulatory systems, causing a phenomena called flagging, during which branches wilt or die.

Nets with one centimeter gaps are preferable, so that pollinators still will be able to get through and large female cicadas will not. Scientists also warn against using pesticides to clear cicadas, given that they could harm other insects and aren’t likely to deter cicadas for very long anyway.

In any pre-pandemic year, the cicadas’ arrival would have been a nightmare for the wedding planners at Towson-based Lemon & Lime Event Design. Brides and grooms who unwittingly planned nuptials in May and June might panic upon realizing that crunchy cicada shells could be a prominent decoration, and the bugs’ noisy whizzing the event’s soundtrack.

But these days, most couples are focused on pandemic safety measures, and the uncertainty that shrouds events in the time of COVID-19.

“If these bugs would have woken up in 2019, it would have been crisis lockdown mode for sure,” said Katey Clark, co-founder of Lemon & Lime. “Now it’s like: Well hopefully we can actually have this wedding. Everything else will work itself out.”

Restaurants, golf courses and orchards alike — banking on a resurgence of customers as COVID-19 vaccines reach more arms and temperatures warm — are hopeful that Marylanders still will meet and dine outdoors.


For Raupp and his team of researchers, the bugs’ arrival is a renaissance, and promises interest in everything from their online cicada cookbook (apparently they taste kind of like shrimp) to their festive cicada T-shirts.

For the Carrie Murray Nature Center in Northwest Baltimore’s Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, the cicadas will offer a unique opportunity to engage children with natural wonders.

The exoskeletons the bugs leave sticking to trees may feature prominently in lessons — and in natural arts and crafts, said Sarah Lank, a naturalist at the center and head of animal care.

“They’re like part of our scavenger hunts and things like that, so the kids usually take to them really well in normal years,” Lank said. “So, I’m also excited to see how the kids interact and engage with them when it’s a huge abundance out there.”