The Cicadas Return After 17 Years: Stunning Footage of the Brood X Cicadas

Sing, fly, mate, die.

The peri­od­i­cal cicadas in Brood X are emerg­ing from under­ground, where they have spent the last 17 years as nymphs. They are mak­ing the final climb of their lives, intent on escap­ing their cara­paces in order to make more cicadas. And as always they are doing it en masse.

Once free, they must quick­ly get the hang of their brand new wings, and make for the trees, where the males will sing (some say scream) in a bid for females with whom to mate.

The preg­nant females drill cav­i­ties into nar­row branch­es to receive their eggs.

By the time the lar­va emerge, some six weeks lat­er, their moth­ers and fathers are long dead.

Instinct pro­pels these babies to drop to the ground and bur­row in, thus begin­ning anoth­er 17 year cycle, a process Samuel Orr, a time lapse pho­tog­ra­ph­er and film­mak­er spe­cial­iz­ing in nature doc­u­men­tary, doc­u­ments in macro close up in Return of the Cicadas, above.

His adven­tures with Brood X date to their last emer­gence in 2004, when he was a stu­dent at Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty, work­ing in a lab with a pro­fes­sor whose area of exper­tise was cicadas.

While wait­ing around for Brood X’s next appear­ance, he trav­eled around the coun­try and as far as Aus­tralia, gath­er­ing over 200 hours of footage of oth­er peri­od­i­cal cicadas for an hour long, Kick­starter-fund­ed film that aired on PBS in 2012.

Brood X has a way of ensur­ing that we humans will also observe a 17 year cycle, at least those of us who live in the states the Great East­ern Brood calls home.

Some cel­e­brate with com­mem­o­ra­tive merch. This year, that means face masks as well as an ever bur­geon­ing assort­ment of t‑shirts, mugs, and oth­er para­pher­na­lia.

Also new this year, Cica­da Safari, ento­mol­o­gist Dr. Gene Kritsky’s smart­phone app for cit­i­zen sci­en­tists eager to help map the 2021 emer­gence with pho­tos and loca­tion.

There are some among us who com­plain about the males’ lusty cho­rus, which can rival garbage dis­pos­als, lawn mow­ers, and jack­ham­mers in terms of deci­bels.

Those con­cerned with the planet’s health can use the data from this and past emer­gences to dis­cuss the impact of cli­mate change and defor­esta­tion. Brood X is list­ed as “Near Threat­ened” on the Inter­na­tion­al Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Nature’s Red List.

Some of us are moved to write poet­ry and songs, though we don’t always get the species right — wit­ness Ogden Nash’s Locust-Lovers, Atten­tion! (1936) and Bob Dylan’s Day of the Locusts (1970).

Inevitably, there will be arti­cles about eat­ing them. It’s true that they’re a hyper­local source of sus­tain­able pro­tein, albeit one that’s rarely on the menu. (The Ononda­ga Nation cel­e­brates — and cer­e­mo­ni­al­ly sam­ples — Brood VII every 17 years, cred­it­ing the insects with sav­ing their ances­tors from star­va­tion after the Con­ti­nen­tal Army destroyed their vil­lages and food sources in 1779.)

Human nature is such that we can’t help but reflect on the twists and turns our lives have tak­en over the last 17 years.

A woman in Mary­land planned a cica­da themed wed­ding to coin­cide with Brood X’s 1987 emer­gence, hav­ing been born two emer­gences before, and grad­u­at­ed from Bryn Mawr dur­ing the 1970 emer­gence, as 50 miles away, Bob Dylan was hav­ing his fate­ful encounter on the cam­pus of Prince­ton.

Most of us will find that our mile­stones have been a bit more acci­den­tal in nature.

Brood X’s emer­gence also serves as a lens through which to view 17 years in the life of our coun­try. The Onion took this to the edge sev­er­al years ago with an arti­cle from the point of view of Brood II, but it’ll be hard to top the 17-year chunk of recent his­to­ry Brood X and the humans who have been liv­ing atop them since 2004 will have to digest.

Speak­ing of his­to­ry, Brood X Mania has been around much longer than any of us have been alive, and prob­a­bly pre­dates a Philadel­phia pastor’s descrip­tion of the 1715 emer­gence in his jour­nal (though we’ll give him FIRST!!! since no ear­li­er accounts have sur­faced).

Pri­or to the Inter­net, ento­mol­o­gist Charles L. Marlatt’s The Peri­od­i­cal Cica­da: An Account of Cica­da Sep­ten­dec­im, Its Nat­ur­al Ene­mies and the Means of Pre­vent­ing Its Injury (1907) was the go to source for all things cica­da relat­ed, and it remains a fas­ci­nat­ing read.

In addi­tion to lots of nit­ty grit­ty on the insects’ anato­my, habits, diet, and habi­tat, he quotes lib­er­al­ly from oth­er cica­da experts, from both his own era and before. The anec­do­tal evi­dence sug­gests our obses­sion is far from new.

These days, any­one armed with a smart­phone can make a record­ing of Brood X’s cacoph­o­ny, but back then, experts in the field were tasked with try­ing to cap­ture it in print.

Pro­fes­sor Charles Valen­tine Riley com­pared the sound ear­ly in the sea­son, when the first males were emerg­ing to the “whistling of a train pass­ing through a short tun­nel” and also, “the croak­ing of cer­tain frogs.” (For those need­ing help with pro­nun­ci­a­tion, he ren­dered it pho­net­i­cal­ly as “Pha-r-r-r-aoh.”)

Pro­fes­sor Asa Fitch’s described high sea­son in New York state, when a max­i­mum of males sing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly:

tsh-e-e-E-E-E-E-e-ou, uttered con­tin­u­ous­ly and pro­longed to a quar­ter or half minute in length, the mid­dle note deaf­en­ing­ly shrill, loud and pierc­ing to the ear

Mar­latt him­self wor­ried, pre­ma­ture­ly but not with­out rea­son, that the march of civ­i­liza­tion would bring about extinc­tion by over-clear­ing the dense­ly wood­ed areas that are essen­tial to the cicadas’ repro­duc­tive rit­u­als while offer­ing a bit of pro­tec­tion from preda­tors.

Dr. Samuel P. Hil­dreth of Mari­et­ta, Ohio not­ed in 1830 that “hogs eat them in pref­er­ence to any oth­er food” and that birds were such fans “that very few birds were seen around our gar­dens dur­ing their con­tin­u­ance and our cher­ries, etc, remained unmo­lest­ed.”

Dr. Leland Oss­ian Howard was erro­neous­ly cred­it­ed with con­duct­ing “the first exper­i­ments of cica­da as an arti­cle of human food” in ear­ly sum­mer 1885. Mar­latt repro­duces the account of an eye­wit­ness who seemed to fan­cy them­selves a bit of a restau­rant crit­ic:

With the aid of the Doctor’s cook, he had pre­pared a plain stew, a milk stew, and a broil. The Cicadae were col­lect­ed just as they emerged from pupae and were thrown into cold water, in which they remained overnight. They were cooked the next morn­ing, and served at break­fast time. They impart­ed a dis­tinct and not unpleas­ant fla­vor to the stew, but they were not at all palat­able them­selves, as they were reduced to noth­ing but bits of flab­by skin. The broil lacked sub­stance. The most palat­able method of cook­ing is to fry in bat­ter, when they remind one of shrimps. They will nev­er prove a del­i­ca­cy.

We leave you with the thoughts of Dr Gideon B. Smith of Bal­ti­more, whose attempt to cap­ture a mer­cu­r­ial month turns bit­ter­sweet, and all too relat­able:

The music or song pro­duced by the myr­i­ads of these insects in a warm day from about the 25th of May to the mid­dle of June is won­der­ful. It is not deaf­en­ing, as many describe it; even at its height it does not inter­rupt con­ver­sa­tion. It seems like an atmos­phere of wild, monot­o­nous sound, in which all oth­er sounds float with per­fect dis­tinct­ness. After a day or two this music becomes tire­some and dole­ful, and to many very dis­agree­able. To me, it was oth­er­wise, and when I heard the last note on the 25th of June the melan­choly reflec­tion occurred. Shall I live to hear it yet again?

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Sounds of the For­est: A Free Audio Archive Gath­ers the Sounds of Forests from All Over the World

Tune Into An Online Radio Sta­tion That Streams the Sooth­ing Sounds of Forests from Around the World

How Sounds Are Faked For Nature Doc­u­men­taries: Meet the Artists Who Cre­ate the Sounds of Fish, Spi­ders, Orang­utans, Mush­rooms & More

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Wel­come back, Brood X Over­lords! Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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