DC deals with a massive cicada invasion for the first time in 17 years
Cicadas return to campus, bringing loud noise and dead skin with them
D.C. just faced a reckoning 17 years in the making: cicadas.
After hatching in trees and burrowing underground in 2004, Brood X cicadas finally crawled out of their holes and began shedding off their skin for the last time. Brood X is one of the largest cicada broods, making this a 17th birthday celebration that all of D.C. is invited to.
This brood of cicadas occupies a large region, including the Washington, Cincinnati and Philadelphia areas. The bugs have an above-ground lifespan of two to four weeks, so while the invasion’s duration is short, its large impact was felt by D.C. residents.
Most American University students were too young to remember the last time the cicadas came up from the ground. This year was their first experience encountering the insects.
Sophomore Ali Feder recalled first hearing the cicadas and thinking an alarm was going off.
“On campus, it would be silent except for them and they were so loud. At first, being from Connecticut, I had no idea what it was,” Feder said. “I had just never experienced something like that in my entire life.”
The cicadas’ D.C. emergence was slightly staggered, partly due to the fluctuating temperatures in May. Cicadas come out when the soil reaches 64 degrees Fahrenheit, so as D.C. weather changed so quickly, different areas of the city were affected at different times, according to The Washington Post.
“The bigger influence on the cicadas has been the cooler weather in June has held them off from emerging for like another week,” said Chris LaPlaca, pest services coordinator for AU and associate certified entomologist. “So, you know, the cooler temperatures kept the numbers down, and then as the warmer weather came in they got a lot, you know, there were a lot more”
“There were tons on Wisconsin Avenue on the sidewalk,” Feder said. “You try to step around them but there’s so many and they’re so loud and they’re everywhere.”
This quickly became the norm for students living off-campus on Wisconsin Avenue and around Northwest D.C. The bugs also swarmed around campus, but in far smaller numbers than the rest of the District.
“The cicada[s] really haven’t been an enormous problem on campus … because we dug up so much of the campus, so we’ve disturbed the soil,” LaPlaca said. “We got rid of the larvae that were living in the ground.”
One of the cicadas’ most invasive habits is the noise that the bug makes. Male cicadas make a call that, when in a large group, can be louder than a lawnmower, according to The Washington Post.
“At my friend’s building we could hear it really loudly if the windows were open,” Feder said. “It kind of sounded like crickets, but a 10 times worse and more annoying version. It was like if crickets were tranquilized and numbed out … the sound is awful.”
Cicadas emerge in such large quantities to account for the fact that they are hunted and eaten by many different species. The sheer number of cicadas serves as a strategy to ensure that the species survives, despite predators’ best efforts. This is an evolutionary strategy called predator-satiation defense and is what allows cicadas to continue thriving with such an unusual behavior pattern, according to Michael Raupp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland.
Throughout their time above ground, female cicadas have been depositing their fertilized eggs in small holes that they create in trees, and in a few weeks these eggs will hatch and the insects will burrow into the ground. These creatures will then return in another 17 years.
While LaPlaca can’t predict the size of the next Brood X generation, he did note that the quantity of bugs has been decreasing generationally.
Students will soon see the last of the District’s cicadas, but another class 17 years from now will have these cicadas’ offspring to reckon with.