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.
Read: Watch a cicada metamorphose
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.