Whether you’ve been dreading them or anxiously awaiting them, you’ll have to wait a few days more for the masses of Brood X cicadas to emerge. While earlier weather conditions were perfect to precipitate the emergence of billions of the bugs, a colder spell appears to be keeping them underground for the moment.
“They’re in a holding pattern,” says entomologist Mike Raupp, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Residents of the D.C. area have reported more than 1,000 cicada sightings in the past few weeks on the app Cicada Safari, a citizen science project to track periodical cicada emergences. While some adult cicadas are already out, many of the cicadas spotted so far have been nymphs waiting just below the surface. They can be found under a rock or pile of leaves, or while pulling weeds.
Recently, conditions were perfect for a mass emergence, Raupp says. High temperatures were in the 80s, and there were afternoon thunderstorms — a little rain can often trigger an emergence. But as the week went on, temperatures tumbled, falling into the 40s at night — too cold for cicadas.
“What we’re waiting for now is a return to temperatures which include nighttime lows in the 60s and daytime highs in the 70s or 80s,” says Raupp. Current forecasts indicate that may not happen until the week of May 17. Indeed the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang has pushed back its cicada “peak bloom” forecast by about a week, to between May 18 and May 20, noting that high and low temperatures are holding between 5 and 10 degrees below normal.
Until then, Raupp says the trickle of cicada sightings will likely continue. When the weather does turn, he says, “the trickle is going to turn into a tsunami.”
Cicadas are cold-blooded, so without warmer weather, they are sluggish.
“Insect development and activity is directly related to temperature,” explains Raupp. “So the colder it is, the slower they move, the less active they are. The warmer it is, the faster they can move and basically the more rapidly they can develop.”
With the current cool weather, cicadas that do emerge won’t be able to move and develop fast enough, and will likely get eaten before they can find a mate.
“These early risers aren’t going to fare so well and are probably simply going to feed the birds and other small mammals that are just sitting there with hungry beaks ready to gobble them up,” says Raupp.
Cicadas lack defense mechanisms — they don’t bite or sting, and they’re not camouflaged or fast. To survive and thrive, they depend on the ability to overwhelm predators with sheer numbers.
Periodical cicadas emerge en masse like clockwork in the spring every 17 years. This brood of cicadas, which lives in D.C., Md., Va., and a dozen other East Coast and Midwest states, has been living underground since 2004, when the last emergence occurred. In the soil, cicada nymphs feed on tree roots, growing fatter by the year and awaiting their few weeks in the sun.
When they emerge, they will molt, spread their wings, and spend a few weeks creating deafening choruses in the treetops. They will mate, lay eggs in tree limbs and die. When the eggs hatch, new nymphs will fall to the ground and burrow in, starting the 17-year cycle all over again.
In the meantime, Washington waits.
Raupp has been inundated with calls and emails — he squeezed in a phone call with DCist before heading out to scout locations with one of two film crews that have contacted him about cicada documentaries they’re working on.
“I’m getting more than a hundred requests a day now,” Raupp says. “I’m falling desperately behind.”
(As published on dcist)