Brood X

The entomologists call them Brood X—the United States’ east coast seventeen-year cicadas. The name appeals to me, reminiscent of a late-seventies punk band. Each generation emerges from deep underground, molts, mates, lays eggs and then dies. Their path to sexual maturity extending longer than even humans. Their bizarre life-span leaves them without an obvious predator. Any animal that fed on them last time they arrived is now probably dead.

In 2004, Sophie, approaching just two years old, toddled out of our house daily, plucked the giant bugs from tree trunks, the wooden fence bordering our front yard, or our home’s red brick façade, and attached them to her skin. She stood, proud and defiant, with four or six cicadas adorning her arms, face and hair. The rhythmic buzzing of a billion bugs so loud, we needed to shout to one another to be heard.

In 1987, eating them was the rage. Newspapers touted their protein content, offered recipes for fine dining. Eat the nymphs they said, newly emerged from the ground. Fresh and chewy, better flavor, better texture. Fry them up in a bit of oil.

My cat, Madison, a teeny gray, longhaired muffin, barely six pounds, repeatedly hopped out the window, returned with a cicada, batted it about the room until its fight was gone, and then gobbled it up, leaving a pair of wings on the floor. Over and over. Two months in, fat hung off that cat in disgusting rolls.

A mid-summer house party at my brother’s house, blast furnace hot, no air conditioning, everyone swilling beer to satisfy their thirst. My brother’s roommate Andy, drunk and dehydrated, fainted cold off his feet. On his way down, he slammed his chin on a table. His beard never grew back in that spot. Me, barely more sober than Andy, and disappointed in myself that I never got around to eating one of the prehistoric bugs, went on a hunt. By July the cicadas were all but gone.

After searching for several minutes, I found a grandfather cicada, huge, crusty, his shell hardened by his long summer searching for a mate, slowly dying on a garbage can lid. I popped him in my mouth and crunched my teeth together. I steeled my will-power not to gag and chased him down with warm beer. Of all the recipes I read in the Washington Post, none remotely mirrored my late-night snack.

Today, looking out my back door and through our screened porch, I bummed about the gloom. Cool and cloudy. Not the morning I hoped for. Yesterday, I spent the day trail-building. Knee deep in grass, a weed whacker mulching the underlying poison ivy and spraying it in my face. Yesterday was a beautiful day—sunny and seventy-five, but lost to hard work. Today, rain threatened as I gathered my clothes to head out for a long run in the state forest. On the porch, backlit against the garden, I thought I saw a slug three feet up the screen. When I went out to investigate, I found a young cicada drying his wings. The first of bazillions. The start of Brood X.

Sophie doesn’t remember it, and Eli hasn’t lived through it. In 2004, Susan and I found the cicada invasion to be one of the most amazing events of our lives. At times, while standing in our front yard, we just started laughing because it was so loud, there was really nothing else to do. We no longer live in DC, but looking at a map this morning, I found Gettysburg dead center in the Brood X disbursement area. We’re in a cicada hotspot. Now that they are emerging, I’m beyond excited. I can’t wait to share this experience with my kids. After this year, I’ll see them possibly one, or if I’m really lucky, two more times in my life. Welcome back Brood X.

Photo by Shannon Potter on Unsplash

23 thoughts on “Brood X

  1. I had to recheck the date on this post. I wrote a post earlier this month about Brood X too. Bill and I looked for them on Thursday but had no luck. I am going back out tomorrow. They did not appear at our house 17 years ago, but in the woods about 5 miles away, they were there in ridiculous numbers. I don’t want to miss them!

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    • I think cicada years are an unexpected boon for all sorts of critters. I’ll be interested to see if my cats now eat them. They’re *always* hungry (or that’s what they tell me).

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  2. I don’t remember ever being near or seeing, or I guess hearing the cicadas. The only thing I think about when I think about cicadas is the movie Lucas where they played a big part in the movie. The other thing I heard is that the cicadas will bring a lot of copperheads out and to be careful. We’ve had issues with snakes in years past. We’ve never had a copperhead but neighbors have and so that is freaking me out. But my ears will be open – hopefully hearing and experiencing the cicadas for the good and not dealing with any snakes.

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    • On the last two occasions (when I was an adult) they were impossible to ignore. Literally everywhere. I hope that isn’t just a DC thing and that we get a huge infestation. There’s a lot of open land around my house. That should bode well.

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  3. As fascinating as they are, I don’t imagine I would like to dodge the flying/jumping/whatever they do bugs everytime I went outside. You make it sound magical though. 4 year old Sophie wasn’t bothered by them so I’m just a wuss.

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    • I have a friend who reads my blog who is terrified by bugs. I’m really looking forward to seeing her. She’ll bash me over the head for this post. Sophie still loves all things nature and she’s studying wildlife biology. Maybe those cicadas sent her down her life-path.

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  4. I love this story, Jeff. Something new to focus on for the summer. In 2007, in northern Illinois, a different 17-year brood emerged. I still recall our basset hound Maggie, whining to go outside. She parked herself under our Norway spruce to consume cicadas. They have never seemed like a delicacy to me, but the buzzing and volume of bugs (and carcasses) is remarkable once they arrive.

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  5. Summer 2004 was HORRIBLE for me. I was raised by a father who entertained the neighborhood kids by petting the bumble bees that visited our lavendula. As a result, I am not afraid of bees in spite of being stung a half dozen or more times.
    I am not bothered by spiders. When spiders appeared in a co-teachers classroom she would get me to take care of the situation. I like to photograph the wolf spiders and garden spiders in their webs that go from the gutters to the ground.
    When the science units at the school where I taught included worms, caterpillars, and various other strange looking insects, I was the one not freaked out. I caught walking sticks, praying mantis, and various other things to bring into my classroom for my second graders to admire.
    But I can’t stand cicadas. In 2004, my then twelve year old son had jars of the shed skins he collected. The shells were thick as mulch at the bottom of our trees and stuck on every inch of our cedar fence. They divebombed me, flew at my ears, hit my neck and fell down my shirt. I screamed every time one hit me. And the sound was sooo constantly loud. I had to lock myself inside for the duration.
    Enjoy your cicadas, Jeff. Just reading your post makes me cringe.

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    • I think this time you’ll be ‘one’ with the bugs. One of the most interesting things I’ve seen with a cicada is one fell out of the sky into the parking lot I was walking through and he was stone dead. He died while he was flying and just plummeted out of the sky. They’re just so bizarre, they’re neat.

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