Billions and Billions of Cicadas

Seventeen years ago I got to experience the emergence of the Brood X cicadas. I lived in Maryland at the time and forgot much about the experience. This time around, the emergence of the Brood X cicadas helped to refresh my memory. The constant background noise that sounds a lot like a car alarm coming from all directions, for instance. Social media didn’t exist 17 years ago so the photos of cicadas were in the newspapers and local news programs as opposed to Facebook. But there were lots of fat squirrels and birds around for months afterward. And there was the discussions that I see today about how best to prepare cicadas as part of a family meal or dessert.

There was an interesting article in the June 2021 issue of Scientific American on the life cycle of the Brood X cicadas. One thing I learned in that article somehow reassured me. I’d wondered why I’d never seen anything mentioned about cicadas when reading histories of colonial America. If my math is right, the Brood X group would have emerged in 1783, but I don’t recall reading about it in any colonial-era histories or biographies. According to the Scientific American article, however, cicadas were often mistaken by settlers in the colonies as locusts, even though cicadas don’t swarm like locusts, or consume crops like locusts.

The article talked about the billions upon billions of cicadas that emerge, first the males and then about six days later, the females. There is an evolutionary reason for this. Predators of all kinds consume this first wave, and by the time females emerge days later, the predators are largely stuffed and there enough males and females left to allow for mating and the continuing of the species.

It is the large number of cicadas that I’d really forgotten about over the last seventeen years. Billions and billions sounds abstract. Even the generalized sound they make on sunny days, despite its volume, doesn’t convey the sheer numbers. You know what does? The sidewalks.

The cicada are in their dying phase now, and the sidewalks and bike paths in the neighborhood are black with their pulped bodied. You can pass patches of blackened sidewalk chasing away clouds of flies feasting on the carcasses of dead cicadas. There is even a smell subtle smell of decay in the air from all of the death going on around us.

The cicadas song provides a constant, steady background noise that works well for a home base when I sit on the deck in the morning to meditate. But I’m ready for it to go away, and to take with it the earthly remains of the dead cicadas. Nature is now doing its work on that front, and hopefully, within the next few weeks, the only proof of the cicadas presence will be the fat squirrels that can barely climb the trees, and the chubby birds that need extra runway space for takeoff.

The next time the Brood X cicadas emerge, our kids will be 29, 27, and 22 respectively. I wonder what memeories they will have of Magicicada septendecim.


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