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In just a few weeks, cicadas will be swarming the Washington region. The so-called “Brood II” cicadas were last seen 17 years ago, and their upcoming arrival is causing both excitement and despair. Entomologist Mike Raupp is among those eagerly awaiting the cicadas, which he says perform important ecological functions. Raupp joins us to chat about “Brood II” and other insect stories in our area.
- Michael Raupp "Bug Guy" and Professor of Entomology, University of Maryland
Cicadas Descend On D.C.
Any day now, swarms of cicadas will return to the Mid-Atlantic region. Last seen in 1996, the 17-year Brood II cicada population will emerge this spring once the ground temperature consistently reaches 64 degrees, 8 inches below ground. It’s expected to be the biggest swarm to hit the D.C. metro area since Brood X in 2004. Michael Raupp, an entomology professor at the University of Maryland, says there could be as many as 1 billion cicadas per square mile.
But areas hugging the coast will be spared from the swarm. Scientists say cicadas don’t burrow in sand, so beaches and shorelines will be relatively quiet. Anne Arundel County and southern Maryland are the closest areas to the coast likely to experience cicadas.
Not to be confused with annual cicadas gatherings, which appear later in the summer, red-eyed brood cicadas emerge periodically to shed their exoskeletons, sing, fly and mate. Unlike locusts, which come in swarms and destroy crops, cicadas don’t do much damage. The next time we’ll hear their distinctive screeching will be in 2021 when Brood X reappears.
Sights And Sounds Of Cicadas
Some of the first Brood II cicadas to hit the D.C. region emerged from the ground this past weekend, says University of Maryland entomologist Michael Raupp. See one of the area’s first Brood II cicada nymphs climbing out of the dirt.
The distinctive buzz of the 13-year Brood XIX is heard in Charlotte, N.C., in 2011.
Follow a cicada as it emerges from the ground and looks for a place to molt.
Hundreds of 17-year cicadas unearth and climb trees in southwest Ohio.
Detailed images show adult cicadas and the molting process. All photos by Michael Raupp.
MR. MARC FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Well, the cicadas are coming.
MR. MARC FISHERAnd depending on how much you enjoy these loud flying bugs, this is either cause for great excitement or flat out fear and disgust. The Brood II cicadas -- Brood 11 -- is that right, Brood 11?
MR. MICHAEL RAUPPNope, these are Brood II, Marc.
FISHERBrood II. The Brood II cicadas which last came out from underground 17 years ago, are due to invade the Washington region in the next several weeks. And you can count the University of Maryland's Mike Raupp among those who are giddy about their arrival. But he is not just geeking out over bugs he only gets to see once in a blue moon. He says these cicadas actually aerate the soil, feed birds and perform important ecological functions.
FISHERHe joins us in studio to preview the bug bonanza headed our way and explore some other reasons why the things crawling around us this spring and summer are a lot more important than you might think. Mike Raupp is an entomology professor at the University of Maryland. And he has sitting right between us the first cicada to emerge, that we know of, from this new brood. And it's a lovely creature. It's got a slightly orange brown tinge to it. And I would say it's a little bit lazy in the little plastic container that it's sitting in between us. And at the moment, at least, we can't hear it. But soon we'll hear it and its friends?
RAUPPAbsolutely, Marc. Actually this little lady, her name is Paula. She's named in honor of the discoverer who just happens to be my colleague. We unearthed these yesterday in St. Mary's County and I believe this is the first Brood II cicada to make an appearance. And she's a lovely little lady, I think. She's going to develop for about another three weeks. She's not quite ready to go yet but I think in two to three weeks her and about four or five trillion of her closest friends are going to make an appearance up and down the east coast.
FISHERAnd our producer Michael Martinez was telling me earlier about a friend of his who grills them up and chomps them down. Is that what you recommend as the disposal method?
RAUPPWell, gee whiz, I don't know. I'm just going to let several million recycle and fertilize my trees. But I have eaten cicadas. They're quite tasty. And if you want to dine on a few, I certainly wouldn't discourage this, unless you have a shellfish allergy. All kidding aside, some people are indeed allergic to cicadas.
FISHERAnd now they make a heck of a noise. And what does that noise mean?
RAUPPWell, the noise is really all about love. This is going to be a big, big love fest up in the treetops. Basically, the males are the ones that quall or sing. This helps the right members of the same species to get together. Once they've attracted a potential mate to the treetop and they get eyeball to eyeball, he'll switch his song a little bit, try to deliver a very enticing line. If she likes the performance she'll signify by doing a little dance, clicking her wings. And then there'll be one last song to seal the deal. They'll mate.
RAUPPShe'll move out to the tips of branches, lay eggs. Those eggs will hatch in about a month. The little nymphs will rain to the ground, burrow beneath the soil and suck plant sap for another 17 years. That's pretty dismal. That's about the end of it for the adults too. They're going to die, rain to the earth and simply fertilize the trees.
FISHERWow. And so the noise portion of their lives is actually quite brief, given the whole age scope.
RAUPPRelatively speaking, yes. It's just a matter of a few brief short weeks, yes.
FISHERAnd the females are silent.
RAUPPWell, we should hope so in this particular case. I don't encourage this across the board but in case of the cicada, she signifies acceptance with a little kind of flicking or clicking with her wings. And that's her signal back. She is very demure. This is quite subtle.
RAUPPBut, nonetheless, quite effective apparently. Just the right words.
FISHERWell, if you'd like to join our conversation about cicadas and other crawling things, 1-800-433-8850 or email us at email@example.com. How do you feel about the wave of cicadas coming to the Washington region this spring? Are you excited? Do you dread them? Do you have any particularly fond or haunting memories of the cicadas or their song? And tell us about that, 1-800-433-8850. And Mike Raupp, this brood is likely to be different from brood that -- the brood that preceded it that arrived in 2004. How are these -- why do we separate these into broods. What does that mean?
RAUPPYeah. It's an excellent question, Marc. Basically, a brood of cicadas as a large synchronous emergence in a well-defined geographic area. So, for example, back in 2004 we had Brood 10, what we call the Great Northern Brood. This one extended from Georgia to New England, west to the Mississippi. The brood that's emerging this year is what we call Brood 2, only from North Carolina to the Hudson Valley, central Connecticut and mostly east of the Appalachian Mountains. A much smaller brood. So almost every year in some part of the country there is a brood of cicadas emerging.
FISHERBut it sounds from your description, at least of those two broods, that we're smack in the middle of it.
RAUPPPretty much. The downside of this is Brood 10 was centered right around the D.C. and Baltimore Metro area. Unfortunately, this one is going to be a little further south. So to see these guys, you're really going to have to go over to Fairfax, Prince William, Calvert, St. Mary's, or perhaps Anne Arundel counties. They're not really going to be right here in the District this time, Marc. I know.
FISHERI can't say that sends me into deep mourning, but...
RAUPPAh, well, it's got me bummed.
FISHERWell, but -- and explain to us the 17 year thing. How do they know it's time to come out and why 17 years?
RAUPPYeah. Well, how they know, what we think is that underground, many insects use light or (word?) as their (word?) , or their timekeeper. These guys are underground. They can't see the light. But what we believe is they plug into the roots of trees, and what they can do is actually count the annual fluxes, and actual changes in contents of nutrients, and perhaps plant hormones underground, and they're counting for 16 years. But in the 17th year, the signal their listening to is temperature.
RAUPPSo when soil temperatures warm to about 64 degrees Fahrenheit, hey, those guys are going to be up and out of those holes and into the treetops. Now, the 17 years is a fascinating story. It's one of the true mysteries of all animals. Basically, this is an incredible clever strategy to synchronize a single massive emergence of cicadas all in one place, all in one time, so that every animal that wants to eat a cicada can have its fill, and there'll still be enough cicadas present in one location to carry on or perpetuate the species. We call it predator satiation. It's a very unique strategy.
FISHERAnd what are some of those animals that eat cicadas?
RAUPPOh, heck. Everything on the planet is going to want to eat a cicada in about three weeks. Foxes -- I'm already seeing -- having reports of foxes, raccoons, squirrels, birds, your dogs are going to eat these things. People are going to eat these things. So there's going to be a lot of munching going on.
FISHERAnd so -- but no -- there are no animals that are dependent on eating these things because otherwise they'd go for a pretty long time without a meal.
RAUPPExactly. And that's part of the strategy as well. This very, very long cycle, we believe, is also basically a defense against any predator or vertebrate predator with a long memory. Apparently, well, most birds simply don't live for 17 years, so what we think part of this is about is the very long life cycle, simply no predator can track this temporally through time.
FISHERHarriet in Hyattsville has what I think is the question of the day. Harriet, you're on the air.
HARRIETHi. Thank you for taking my call. Your guest mentioned that unless you have an allergy to the shrimp family, that perhaps you would enjoy grilled cicadas. Are they related somehow, distant, distant cousins or something?
FISHERThey -- and, you know, looking at the cicada on the table, it's a very logical question. Are they related to shrimp? There's a certain resemblance.
RAUPPYou know, Harriet, this is an excellent question indeed. These are arthropods. They all belong to a large group of animals. In fact, some would argue the most successful group of animals on the planet by virtue of their great diversity, and they have an exoskeleton. That means that unlike us, our skeleton is on the inside. An insect's skeleton, and also a crustacean's skeleton, things like shrimp or lobsters, their skeleton is on the outside. So yes, indeed, they are closely related, and that's why we are concerned that people that might have a seafood allergy, particularly a shrimp or lobster allergy, just might not want to try a cicada.
FISHERIs there a similarity in taste?
RAUPPWell, I don't know. They don't taste like chicken. They do taste more like shrimp. I think they have a delicate nutty flavor, a buttery texture, with just hints of the tannins from the trees which they fed on for 17 years.
FISHERI have a feeling before the hour is up, you're going to be giving me those wine pairings.
RAUPPWell, I think so. I like them in the afternoon with a merlot. Of course, some people will really like them with a chardonnay which will synthesize with the tannins from the observing casks.
FISHEROkay. While people are mulling that over, we have an email from Josh Adams Morgan who says, "I have a three-and-a-half year old daughter who goes to a local daycare. Her class has been studying bugs for a few weeks, and she's fascinated but also quite alarmed by them. If a housefly shows up, she goes nuts. My question, and this may be more for a child psychologist than an entomologist, what if anything can we do so my daughter and her class don't spend the next month shrieking?"
RAUPPWell, again, depending where your daughter is, she may be off the hook on this one, unless this daycare is over in Calvert, as I said, Anne Arundel, St. Mary's, or northern Virginia, she's probably going to be okay. You know, what I found with children, and I work with a lot with children, what I like to do with kids that might be a little bit nervous about insects is read storybooks about insects, maybe show them some of the prettier and more beneficial insects or less scary bugs like ladybird beetles, and talk about what they do.
RAUPPAnd maybe plan a bug hunt. Maybe a little insect safari out in the garden, just to see, you know, kind of the pretty insects, the butterflies, and some of the flies and beetles and such that you'll see in your garden. Maybe start that way with it. But I think education here and familiarity is the key, and I think it's vitally important that we reconnect our children with nature. This is something I think that's slipped away. So the more that we can bring nature into a childhood realm of understanding and experience, I think the better off for all of us.
FISHERWe will continue our conversation about the cicadas that are coming our way right after a short break. I'm Marc Fisher, and you're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting for Kojo Nnamdi. We are talking with Mike Raupp, an entomology professor at the University of Maryland, and we are talking about cicadas. You can join us at 1-800-433-8850. And let's go right to Kevin in Washington. Kevin, you're on the air.
KEVINThank you, Marc. I had seen a show I think on the science channel, and I believe the professor was actually on the show taking about the significance of why 13 years and 17 years, and I was wondering if he could discuss that now.
RAUPPYeah, Kevin. This is an excellent question. Again, this is part of the cicada mystery. Remember I mentioned that the strategy here for these cicadas is to simply overwhelm their predators. Let's imagine in any given location we had a thousand cicadas emerge every year. Let's suppose in that same location, there were enough predators to eat 950, so in any given year, there would only be 50 cicadas left. Now, let's suppose that one of these cicadas made a clever trick, and instead of emerging every year, it emerged every two years.
RAUPPNow on the year it emerges there now 2000 cicadas emerging and the predators can only eat 950. That means instead of 50 left, there are now 1,050. So they benefit. The prime number basically keeps everybody locked in lock step, so because prime numbers are only divisible by themselves and the number one, it keeps everybody synchronized for that massive emergence to simply overwhelm the predators that want to eat these things. It's clever, it's bizarre. Now, I cannot tell you why 13 or 17. There are lots of other prime numbers in between, but they've decided 13 and 17 are the way to go.
FISHERSo in a sense, it's -- does it serve the same evolutionary purpose as herding does?
RAUPPYeah. Herds are a very clever strategy. More eyes out. Basically you're going to watch out. So instead of -- two eyes can only see a limited vision, but if you have a hundred eyes looking in every direction, you're much more likely to see that lion when it's sneaking up on you.
FISHERThanks for the call, Kevin. Here's Janelle in Berlin, Md.
JANELLEHi there. How are you?
FISHERPretty good. How are you doing?
JANELLEI'm doing good. I have two questions actually. What will the cicadas be eating until the time of their passing, I guess I'm trying to ask, and then secondly, how will this affect, if anything, the agriculture or the farming practices over here on the eastern shore? Thank you.
RAUPPJanelle, you're not going to have to worry about this at all. They only suck a little bit of plant sap up in the tree tops during their brief, brief stay here above ground. The folks that might have to worry would be orchardists. For example, if you planted, let's say peach trees or cherry trees or apple trees in the past year or two, these trees are going to have a great abundance of very tender young chutes. That's where the females are going to go to lay those eggs, and that's where we see the damage. So if you have young fruit trees, I would recommend buying netting.
RAUPPYou can buy commercial netting to place over the tops of these small trees, and in that way you can protect them out using insecticides.
FISHERThanks, Janelle. And here's Debbie in Greenbelt. Debbie, you're on the air.
DEBBIEHello. Thank you for taking my call. I just want to say that I enjoy the cicadas. I'm not afraid of them or anything, but I find it very humorous watching people at work run screaming to their cars trying to get away from them.
DEBBIEAnd I also collect them for a friend that does clay sculptures out of them afterwards, which is interesting.
DEBBIEAnd I must say that I've never had a chocolate one. So I might need to try that.
FISHERAnd Debbie, do your co-workers, are they afraid of the noise, or they just freaked out by the way they look?
DEBBIEThey're just basically afraid of them just flying around everywhere. They just run for their cars, and it just makes me laugh. It's just so funny.
FISHERThey're not exactly elegant in flight, are they?
DEBBIENo, they're not. But, you know, they're so cute, that I just want to save them.
RAUPPAh, that's very sweet.
FISHERProfessor Raupp, cute, is that the scientific term for it?
RAUPPWell, yeah. I think they're fascinating. I mean, look at these guys. They've got these bright red eyes and the black bodies, and, you know, Highland wings with raising stripes -- orange racing stripes and a little bit of orange stripes on their belly. They're just way cool. I'm with you, Debbie. I'm loving these guys.
FISHERI should note...
FISHERI should note that Mike Raupp is fondling is perhaps too strong a word, but handling these...
RAUPPLet's not go -- let's not go there, Marc.
RAUPPBut handling these cicadas that are -- that you have preserved how?
RAUPPWell, this is very Gary Larson-esque. I simply stab them through the back with an insect pin and put them in this box. It looks like the terra cotta warriors, doesn't it?
FISHERIt does. It does. It's a --
RAUPPYes. They're remarkable.
FISHERIt's a cardboard box with row upon row of cicadas from what year?
RAUPPThese are 2004. These are Brood 10s.
FISHERAnd they're -- they're very well preserved...
FISHER...and some of them have a rather gorgeous wingspan that has orange tinges to it.
RAUPPYeah. These are good looking bugs.
FISHEROkay. Here's Colin in Arlington. Colin, you're on the air.
COLINHello. Can you hear me?
FISHERYes. Go ahead.
COLINThank you very much. My question is regarding whether or not there have been any long term population dynamic studies of any of these broods in order to determine what impacts, if any, or development over the past 10, 20 years has had on their numbers?
RAUPPColin, that's an excellent question. And yes indeed there have been. There have been many, many studies. We know there used to be a much broader distribution of cicadas. Several of the population in the New York metropolitan area, particularly in places like Long Island, historical records would indicate that cicadas were there that are no longer there. So long term development, the process of urbanization, particularly creation of hardscape, I think is very detrimental to the cicada.
RAUPPHaving said that, there are types of development which I believe are beneficial. For example, as we see the conversion from farmlands back to residential communities, because cicadas need trees to breed. So when we move away from broad scale agriculture into residences and parks and schools where we have deciduous trees, I think that's actually beneficial for our cicadas. So it's kind of a give and take situation. We've lost some, but I think perhaps we've gained some as well.
FISHERAnd here is Joyce in Herndon. Joyce, you're on the air.
JOYCEOh, thank you. I am so excited, you have totally made my day. I just love all of these exciting little creatures with the big orange eyes, and the miracle of the timing. To me it's like a religious experience. How can they be so on time, And they're -- and I just love the sound of it. So thank you. You have totally made my day by saying they're coming back this year. I'm going to be waiting for them over here in Herndon and Reston.
RAUPPJoyce, get ready. It's going to be a cicadapalooza. You're going to be in seventh heaven here I hope in a few short weeks. But be sure you find out where they are. They'll be well recognized once they're up and out towards the end of May. Go find them and enjoy them.
FISHEROne quick thing before we go. Not about cicadas, but about the stinkbug. You've also brought some stink bugs with you, and I know they're crawling in through the windows at my house and probably many others. Why are they here, and what do we do about them?
RAUPPYeah. I think we're going to have a big stinkbug year this year. The break out year was back in 2010. They kind of hit the skids in '11 and the early part of '12, but by the end of last year, Marc, populations were way up to that level we saw in 2009, which was the presage for 2010, the break out year. I think unfortunately, without stinkbugs, I think we're going to have problems this year again.
FISHERAnd is -- do they do any harm other than the fact that they stink?
RAUPPWell, the stinky is annoying. They're not going to breed in your home. They're not going to, again, bite you or your children, but for our fruit growers in the region, these are a major, major, agricultural pest. Back in 2010 they caused $37 million to our apple growers alone in this region. So this -- these are very, very serious agricultural pests.
FISHERAnd if you want to hear more about cicadas and stinkbugs and the like, you should check out Professor Mike Raupp's bug of the week blog, which we will link to on the kojoshow.org website. So Mike Raupp, entomology professor at the University of Maryland, thanks very much for bringing these critters in here, and maybe we'll do some cicada dining before...
RAUPPOh, man. It's gonna be great, Marc. Thanks so much. Always a pleasure.
FISHERI'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks so much for joining us. See you next time.
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