A lot can change in 17 years. The last time the cicadas were here, the virus behind the SARS outbreak had finally retreated. George W. Bush was campaigning for his second presidential term, and Myspace had commenced its meteoric rise. Tobey Maguire was still the reigning Spider-Man. The year was 2004, and a roaring mass of red-eyed, black-bodied insects had just mated and died—and left behind billions of baby bugs, heirs of the hallowed Brood X, to burrow into the soil for a lonely stint underground.
Now, as the world attempts to trounce a new SARS-like virus, these orphaned insects are resurfacing for their first taste of sunlight in nearly two decades. By mid-May or so, a dozen states in the Mid-Atlantic, South, and Midwest will be bombarded with teenage bugs, creaking out choruses of come-hither calls—some as loud as lawn mowers—and jonesing for sex. For a few short, glorious weeks, the newly liberated bugs will gather in clouds as dense as 1.5 million per acre, blanketing trees and roadways, filling buildings and buses and the bellies of dogs. They will mate, and then they will die, dropping a legion of eggs to hatch another generation of cicadas into the dirt, beginning the cycle anew. It is an X-rated rumspringa on steroids, the ultimate last hurrah.
When cicadas emerge, it’s hard for humans to look away. “Like ’em or hate ’em, you cannot ignore them,” John Cooley, a biologist at the University of Connecticut, told me. Cicada chasers are already getting calls about these up-and-comers, weeks ahead of schedule. (One expert I talked with informed me that I was his sixth cicada call of the day.) After the year we’ve had, Brood X’s arrival is a joyous, zany distraction, one of the few things about 2021 that still feels predictable—and the cicada stans are coming in hot.
Something else could be behind our obsession with Cicadafest 2021. For the first time in a long time, maybe ever, a lot of us are vibing hard with these bugs. Call it cicada envy: We’ve gotten a year-long taste of their solitary adolescence, and are now craving the raucous springtime orgy that inevitably follows. The bugs’ subterranean seclusion might be extended, but at least it has a definite expiration date. And the cicadas’ coming debauchery—the gathering of a lifetime—could be a tantalizing foreshadow of the end of our own isolation, when we can shed our inhibitions like so much exoskeletal molt.
In a pandemic, humans face the most danger from crowds. But among cicadas, the more bodies, the better. “They have this safety-in-numbers strategy, in order to survive,” Chris Simon, a biologist at the University of Connecticut, told me. Not all cicadas synchronize their emergence. Those that do, called periodical cicadas, engage in a self-sacrificial strategy: So many come out at once that even the most gluttonous predators can’t nom the bugs into extinction. Of the 15 broods of periodical cicadas in the U.S., 12, including Brood X (that’s X as in “10,” from the Roman numeral), pop up every 17 years. The rest appear every 13.
This system must be perfectly timed and tuned. Cicadas that surface too early are quickly snarfed up by predators, and have no partner to woo. Those that are sluggish “miss the party,” Cooley told me. In both cases, they usually die alone and unsexed.
Avoiding such a sad end requires careful arithmetic, which, remarkably, cicadas seem to carry out by tracking the seasonal pulses of nutrients in the underground vegetation they sup on. Each passing year adds another tick to their mental log, until they hit the magic threshold of 17 (or 13, as the case may be). The long wait time probably provides some cushion, giving late bloomers time to catch up to their more precocious kin. “They’re able to do all this without cellphones, without talking to cicadas in the vicinity,” Samuel Ramsey, an entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Maryland, told me—an impressive system of coordination without apparent communication. Finally, in the throes of spring, late-stage nymphs climb back upward to wait near the soil’s surface until it reaches 64 degrees Fahrenheit—the final signal for them to burst free. Would that we, too, could be freed from our pandemic prison by a simple change in the weather.
Many humans fixate on the cicadas’ debut. But their time in purgatory is at least as beguiling. Seventeen years ago, the bugs of Brood X were little nymphs, white and fragile and smaller than apple seeds, dropping from the branches of trees where the eggs that held them had been laid. Their pale, squishy bodies fell to the dirt and began to carve out solitary burrows several inches underground, where they sucked a watery substance called xylem from plant roots. In the 17 years since, they have undergone four developmental transitions, during which the young cicadas had only three chief responsibilities: drink, grow, and wait.
We’ve logged just one year in this pandemic, engaging in our own mammalian version of drinking, growing, and waiting; God willing, we won’t log 16 more. But it takes a lot more than time and food for humans to truly transform. If anything, I’ve metamorphosed in reverse over the past few months, devolving from a fully fledged adult into a feeble, soft-bodied nymph.
Pandemic or no, Brood X will rise—an immutable imperative of nature, human crisis be damned. Many of us can’t help but get swept up. Gene Kritsky, a cicada expert at Mount St. Joseph University, in Ohio, told me he’s helped more than 80 couples time their wedding ceremonies around the arrival of various cicada broods. Others, like Louie Yang, an entomologist at UC Davis, have tracked their life in cicada units. Yang, who’s 43, has been alive for two Brood X eruptions, and hopes he’ll get to see two more after this one. “So much has happened aboveground,” he told me. “Below the ground, the clock is slower.” That time warp is something we might have a better appreciation for now.
Periodical cicadas offer a lesson in temperance, but also a cautionary tale. Their time spent underground is predictable, methodical. When they surface, all hell breaks loose. A fraction of the brood will die to fill the bellies of predators, so their brethren might fly free. Others might be lost to a devastating fungus that drugs the bugs with mind-altering psychedelics and makes their butts fall off. Even the lucky cicadas, who manage to couple up in their few good days aboveground, “die in horrible and gratuitous ways,” Cooley told me.
Human timelines are hazier than cicadas’. We can’t guarantee when we’ll be able to safely break free of our confines and mingle unchecked. But when we do, we won’t have to flame out in a matter of weeks; we won’t have to die from a butt-munching fungus. And unlike insects, we can endure our time in isolation knowing just how much the wait will pay off, then reflect on the lessons we have learned—about ourselves, about what matters most in life, about how to stop outbreaks from spiraling out of control. A lot can change in 17 years. The next time the cicadas are here, perhaps we’ll have grown up, too.