On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
We’re about to have a National Geographic special in our own backyard.
That’s right: The cicadas are coming. Brood X (pronounced “10”) have been underground for 17 years, and these nymphs are preparing to emerge, head to the treetops and mate. To attract the females, males make a high-decibel sound so loud, it breaks some local noise ordinances.
How many cicadas should we expect? When should we expect them? How can we protect our trees? And, if we’re interested in having a taste, how should we prepare them? Michael Raupp, aka The Bug Guy, joins us to talk about these amazing creatures.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
- Michael Raupp "Bug Guy" and Professor of Entomology, University of Maryland; @BugoftheWeek
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Are you hearing that? Have you heard the buzz? Everyone's talking about it. The cicadas are coming. Joining me now to discuss the joys of cicadas is Mike Raupp. He's a professor emeritus of entomology at the University of Maryland. We know him as the "Bug Guy." Mike Raupp, so good to hear from you.
MICHAEL RAUPPWell, Kojo, it's so great to be back, and I just wanted to thank you so much today for giving voice to about 8 million cicadas that are going to appear here in the DMV in just about two months. So, the cicadas thank you, Kojo, and I thank you, Kojo. Thank you.
NNAMDIYou're more than welcome. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, you're not with me in studio, but when you do come in, you often bring some bug friends with you. Who would you have brought today? Are there any cicadas around yet? Who else would you have brought?
RAUPPOh, baby, well, I'll tell you. I fortunately have saved a box. I have a boxful of the parents of these very teenagers that are about to emerge. So, I do have a few props, and I got a box of about 50 cicadas right now that I'm looking at. And they are drop-dead gorgeous.
NNAMDIWell, I'm sure there are a lot of people who have questions about cicadas. If you have any you should start calling now. You'll be surprised at how quickly the segment will go by. The number's 800-433-8850 if you have any questions about cicadas. Do you remember when the periodical cicadas came here in 2004 or in 2013? 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to Kojo@wamu.org, or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Mike, this region is expecting to be overwhelmed by periodical cicadas soon. Tell us what we're in store for.
RAUPPWell, it's going to be a cicada palooza. Right now, here in the DMV, there could be as many -- in some areas, perhaps Northern Virginia, parts of Maryland and even right there in the District, Kojo, there are some places where the densities of cicadas are going to be about 1.5 million per acre. Now, that's a lot of cicadas. And the interesting part here is these are the Brood 10 cicadas. They are the most widely distributed in North America, ranging all the way from George to New York State, and then west to the Mississippi River.
RAUPPWhat this means, Kojo, is you're going to have the intersection between perhaps billions, or I'm hoping for trillions, of cicadas with major metropolitan areas, where you're going to have tens of millions of human beings. So, there are going to be an awful lot of people that are going to have a wonderful treat in about two months.
NNAMDIWell, people would say cicadas are here every year. Why is this year different?
RAUPPThis is a little bit different. The cicadas we see every year are what we call the annual cicadas, and they have relatively short lifecycles, two to perhaps four or six years. So, they're going to appear a little bit later in the summertime. They're often called Dog Day cicadas, because they'll be appearing in those warm days of summer from June through July, August and into September.
RAUPPThe periodical cicadas are found nowhere else on the planet, maybe nowhere else in the universe, except right here in the eastern half of the United States. And they have one of the strangest strategies for survival of any creature on the planet. They are simply going to come out either every 13 or 17 years in such massive numbers that they're going to fill the bellies of every predator that wants to eat them, and there'll still be enough left over to perpetuate their three or four species. So, this is bizarre, Kojo. These are unique, very unique creatures.
NNAMDIApart from being eaten, what are the cicadas going to do once they emerge?
RAUPPOh, once they emerge. Well, they're going to come up out of the ground, usually at twilight, to avoid the hungry eyes of predators, and through the night and evenings. They're going to make a mad dash for vertical structures. That could be a tree, that could be your house. If you go out at nighttime and you stand still, that could be you. They're then going to shed. They're going to molt into adults. The adults -- then this is the time that they're most vulnerable. It will take them several hours for their wings and legs to harden, so they can climb up into the relative safety of the tree.
RAUPPAnd then within a few days, Kojo, hey, it's going to be all about romance. Remember, these guys -- these are teenagers. They're 17 years old. They've been living a COVID-like existence underground for 17 years. And when they get up in the treetops, it's going to be a big boy band. Only the males sing, and then it's all about romance, Kojo.
RAUPPThose males are going to get up there. They're going to call in their brood mates. They're going to get eyeball-to-eyeball with the babes, and they're going to perform a special song, a chorus, to try to convince that special someone that she should be the mother of his nymphs. And if he's successful, she's going to click her wings, they're going to hook up. She's going to move out to the tips of branches to lay her eggs. Then, unfortunately, for (laugh) the cicadas, it's all going to be over.
RAUPPThey're going to rain down to the ground, and they're going to enrich the soil beneath the very plants from which they were spawned. It's basically a circle of life. It's just an amazing event that's going to happen in your backyard.
NNAMDIWell, so even thought their courting rituals seem to be superior to ours, they last a lot shorter periods of time, I guess. That's why they're so good at it. How can we tell exactly where the cicadas will emerge? I know a lot of people might be wondering if they'll have cicadas in their own backyard.
RAUPPSure. Yeah, the best thing to do is to, if you've been in that property since the last emergence in '04, I can pretty much guarantee if you had cicadas back in '04, you're going to have them again. If you moved into that place in, let's say, 2010, ask your neighbors and find out if you will have cicadas. But the real clues are going to begin very shortly. I've already had the first report of raccoons excavating the ground underneath the trees. Right now, those cicadas are ready to go. They're at their full development, and very shortly, within the next month they'll begin to create their exit galleries, basically their exit tunnels.
RAUPPSo, in April, begin to look underneath your trees. You'll see holes about the size of a dime underneath your trees. And, in some places, they'll actually construct little mud turrets, little mounds maybe two or three inches high of mud. Look into those holes as we move through April, and don't be surprised if you see a little tiny cicada in there looking back at you. What they're now doing is just waiting for soil temperatures to hit the magic 64 degrees Fahrenheit. And when that happens, it's going to be up and out, and on to the big party.
NNAMDIChad from Arlington emails: I heard some cicadas at the Great Falls Park just last week. Are they early emergers, or something else?
RAUPPOh, Chad, you know, I get so excited the first time I hear that noise, but guess what? These are spring peepers. These are amphibians, and they're out doing the same thing. The guys are chorusing, and they're getting ready to do what the spring peepers do. But don't be fooled. You'll be hearing them. We're really not going to hear that chorus begin. The earliest will be perhaps the end of the second week of May, or, as I said, in the latter half. Those last two weeks in May is when they're really going to be rocking the treetops. So, get ready.
NNAMDIThe number to call is 800-433-8850. If the lines are busy, you can send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to Kojo@wamu.org, or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. I think I'll take Brian in Columbia, Maryland, first, because Brian's kind of special. Brian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRIANWhat's up, pop? What's up, Kojo?
NNAMDIThis is Mike Raupp's son, Brian...
BRIANOh, boy. Yes. Oh, boy.
NNAMDI...whose music I have enjoyed. But Brian, you probably have a question.
BRIANI have a question, but I think I'll yield that time other people. I really just wanted to call in and say thank you to Kojo, not only for having my dad on these many, many times, but just for what you've meant to me personally throughout these years of listening, for what you've meant to my family, for what I know you mean to my dad. You deserve all the flowers in the world. You are a treasure, and I just want to say thank you. That's all.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your support over the years, Brian. And thank you very much for allowing your father to be a guest on this show (laugh) over the years, and allowing him to introduce me to your music. So, thank you for everything. And, as you know, I'm not going away completely. I'll still be doing The Politics Hour with Tom Sherwood on Fridays. So, we'll probably find a way to stick the "Bug Guy" in there from time to time. But, Brian, thank you very much for your call. Anything you'd care to say to your son, Mike?
RAUPPWell, now, you know, my kids are the best kids in the world, and that Brian is one special guy. So, he's about to become a father. We just had the baby shower this weekend, so...
RAUPP...boy, that little one might be here just in time to have the celebration in the year of the cicada. It is going to be special, no doubt about it.
NNAMDIExactly right. Take care, Brian. Nice talking to you. Here now is Elizabeth in Washington, D.C. Elizabeth, your turn.
ELIZABETHHi, Kojo and Mike. I love cicadas, because I was a little kid one time when they came out. And I thought it was fascinating and super-cool. And I've seen so many people on neighborhood, you know, posting about, you know, oh no, we're dreading the cicadas. They're gross, we want to kill them, that kind of thing. And I just think that, you know, they're amazing beneficial insects. They wait, you know, more than a decade to emerge. They've got one shot. And, personally, I think that people should just enjoy them and leave them alone.
ELIZABETHI mean, me personally, the last time they came out, I went running around my car and, like, making sure to get them off my tires before I would, you know, take off. So, I personally would hope that people would try to, you know, either leave them alone or maybe help them out a little bit.
NNAMDII'm like you, Elizabeth. I love it when the cicadas come around. Mike, let's zoom in for a moment. What do cicadas look like up close, and why are they so loud?
RAUPPWell, you've got a nice one on your website, and that's exactly what they look like. These are pretty spectacular insects, Kojo. They're an inch or two long, the different three species. They've got a jet-black body color. They've got these fantastic-looking red eyes. They've got orange wings. It's really hard to beat in terms of color and body shape, but frankly, just all-out coolness. So, they are remarkably special insects.
RAUPPThe question -- you asked the question about the noise, how they make this particular sound. The males have an organ in their side. It's called the timbal organ. It's like a drumhead. It's on their abdomen. They have one tymbal on each side. They simply vibrate the muscles. That vibrates the drumhead. Their abdomen is hollow. It acts like an acoustic amplifying chamber, so they can basically belt out that chorus somewhere between about 80 and 100 decibels. That's the sound of a lawnmower engine or jet aircraft going by, so they're going to be noisy in the treetops.
NNAMDIFor those perhaps looking to overcome a fear of large bugs -- and fear of cicadas, in particular -- they are big, indeed, but I admit, they are beautiful. Lots of shimmery colors, and I guarantee you, kids will want to pick them up. Is that okay?
RAUPPIt's absolutely okay. Cicadas do not bite or sting. I will say this. I have had some reports of people holding a cicada. And these cicadas, basically, they sip plant sap from the branches of trees. I have heard reports of a cicada giving someone perhaps a little peck or a little poke. They're not going to break the skin. Frankly, I have handled literally thousands of cicadas and never been pecked. So, I know my granddaughters will be picking these up. I certainly will be holding hundreds, if not thousands of these rascals. So, I would encourage people to learn as much as they can right now. And if you want to pick one up, I think you're going to be okay.
NNAMDILet's go to Bob, in Chesapeake, Maryland who seems to be having a case of cicada jealousy. Bob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BOBYes, good morning. Thank you. And it's something I've been curious about. I grew up in Baltimore and, of course, experienced these things many times, or a couple times. But now living in Calvert County, we don't seem to get, at least in the last ones, the amount that our neighbors in Anne Arundel or PG Counties get. And I was wondering if there's a reason for that, possibly sandy soil or a breakup of the water waves, or what the experts can tell me on that.
RAUPPYep, Bob, this is an excellent question. I get this one a lot. For people that want to avoid the cicadas, simply head for the Eastern Shore. Go to Ocean City as Bob said. We're not going to have cicadas this time on the Eastern Shore, Bethany, Ocean City or in Southern Maryland, St. Mary's and down that way.
RAUPPWhat most likely happened here is that during the period of glaciation, as the great ice sheets encroached and then receded up and down the Appalachian Mountains and sea levels rose and fell, there was probably a critical time that much of our eastern shore was simply submerged. And I think cicadas can hold their breath for a little while, but I don't think they can hold it for centuries or decades. So, I believe that during that last, let's say, 500,000 years that these different broods evolved, it simply was a time that they could not colonize and radiate those lands. Could it happen in the future? Well, perhaps it could.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Bob. Ed emailed us with two questions about cicadas. One you've already answered, and that is: Are there cicadas in other parts of the world? You said, no, this is it. The other question is, could it be that cicadas, while underground, are actually synergistic for the trees, and vice versa?
RAUPPWell, that's a great question and let me clarify that it is the periodical cicadas that are unique to North America. We have cicadas on every continent except Antarctica. So, they are worldwide in their distribution, but these are annual-type cicadas. Now, a synergistic effect, this is an excellent question. For the 17 years they're underground, understand that they are actually taking from the plant. They're sipping sap. They are herbivores, so the plant is actually feeding them. So, I'm not sure that the plant wouldn't prefer not to have hundreds or thousands of little, tiny creatures sucking its sap.
RAUPPHowever, in returning the favor, later in life, as I said, as they die, as they fall to the earth and as their bodies decompose, they are going to release nutrients that then will be recycled by the plant. Also, remember that these thousands and millions of exit holes are basically aerating the soil to a depth of perhaps 15 or 18 inches, allowing water penetration. And you heard about our heavy clay soils here a little bit earlier. So, this will give back to the tree, as well.
RAUPPAnd also understand that the birds and things that might be eating caterpillars that are feeding on the trees, by virtue of having this bounty of cicadas this year, their populations might increase, and this may level some effect of reducing some of our harmful pests in the landscape. So, cicadas are masters at transferring energy and nutrients and materials up and down food webs. They're conveyors of materials and energy up and down different, what we say, trophic levels, or levels in food webs. So, they're very, very important in this amazing transfer.
NNAMDIMike, the cicadas emerging this year are Brood 10 cicadas. What is a brood, and what's special about Brood 10, compared to other ones?
RAUPPYeah, a brood is a geographically distinct and defined collection of cicadas that emerges simultaneously in massive numbers every 13 or 17 years. And it's not just cicadas that re emerging this year. In most years in the eastern half of the United States there are periodical cicadas emerging somewhere. It's just that Brood 10, because of its very, very broad distribution, 15 states ranging from Georgia to New York and then west to the Mississippi, this is the most widely distributed brood of cicadas. And by virtue of that, this one will generate more cicadas in sheer numbers than the other broods which may be more localized geographically.
NNAMDIMichael from Catonsville, Maryland emails: Is it true that broods cycle on prime numbers?
RAUPPAbsolutely. Again, Michael, their strategy for survival is this incredible, massive, synchronous emergence. What the prime number does, the very long lifecycle makes it very difficult for populations of predators to build up and basically overwhelm them, defeating that crazy strategy of basically predator satiation, safety in numbers. The prime numbers ensure that in any given area, cicadas don't emerge simultaneously, and hybrids emerge in off years.
RAUPPIf we have hybridizations that should, as Fauci would say, flatten that curve, then the predators might simply drive those cicadas in that area to extinction and eliminate that brood of cicadas. So, prime numbers ensure that they will only hook up, they'll only emerge in lockstep with other members of that brood. And in places where we have both 13 and 17-year cicadas that do emerge, hey, that event only happens once every 221 years. So, this is their clever strategy for survival. They're really mathematicians with tiny wings.
NNAMDIHere's Lucas, in Arlington. Lucas, your turn.
LUCASGood afternoon, and thank you for taking my call. Very interesting and informative show. Here's the dilemma. Spring is a time when crabgrass and all of these other things that are growing on your lawn need to be dealt with. Obviously, pesticides will have a negative impact, but what advice do you have? Are there any chemicals that are safe to them, and yet will be able to deal with the issue that comes up our lawns every spring?
RAUPPYeah, this is a pretty tricky one, and this is a point of concern. We basically -- I'm not aware of any data, Lucas, that can inform us on this decision. What I will say is the cicadas that are about to emerge now have completed their development. Applications of pesticides -- again, depending on what those pesticides are -- could very well harm cicadas as they prepare to exit those galleries. I don't think there's any question about that.
RAUPPNow, in terms of managing things like grubs in soil, white grubs or other pests, we do have pesticides that have short residuals. There are some biological pesticides, including formulated microbial insecticides like nematodes and certain fungi that we can use to suppress pest populations. This is a concern. I wish I had a better answer that's data-based on this, Lucas, but unfortunately, I do not. It certainly is something to consider, and I guess if you could put off those lawn treatments perhaps for a year or so, that that might not be a bad idea, at all.
NNAMDIMary sent us an email: What's the benefit of these great bugs to wildlife? My pups love them. I might assume foxes and some birds might, as well. And before you respond, Kim, in Washington, has a question along similar lines. Kim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KIMI had heard that the cicadas make a noise that they call singing. It's kind of too bad that the Grammies have come and gone. But I wanted to know, what animals eat cicadas?
RAUPPYeah, Kim and Mary, everything on the planet is going to want to eat a cicada pretty soon, including me. So, basically, yeah, birds, we absolutely know that birds will fledge more successfully. There will be more food. Some of them they double clutch and do a second batch of eggs. So, we know the avian predators are simply going to have a field day.
RAUPPAs I said, I've already had reports of raccoons, skunks. There'll be chipmunks, there'll be squirrels, the small rodents. The small mammals are going to feast on those. Those that drop into water will be scarfed up by trout and bass. Turtles will eat them.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Got to interrupt, because I only have about a minute left, and I wanted to get Cally Roo in Virginia's question on. Cally Roo, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CALLY ROOOkay. My name is Cally Roo, and I'm five years old, and I have a question about spiders, not cicadas. And my question is, why do spiders build webs?
NNAMDIGot about 30 seconds, Mike.
RAUPPCally Roo, spiders are so clever. They build these beautiful webs. I thought they were building them just to entertain me. But you know what? That's how they capture their prey. When little flies or bees or butterflies or other insects are flying about, they get snared in the web, and the spider catches them and eats them.
NNAMDIMike Raupp, he's a professor emeritus of entomology at the University of Maryland. We know him as the "Bug Guy." Mike, it has been a pleasure working with you over all these years. Thank you so much for joining us. This segment with "Bug Guy" Mike Raupp on the return of our amazing cicadas was produced by Cydney Grannan. Our conversation about our glorious cherry blossoms was produced by Richard Cunningham.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, we're a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, a time marked by uncertainty, fear, sickness and death. It was hard for all and devastating for many. And though we're all more than ready for it to be over, there were a few silver linings. Join us for a look back at the year of COVID. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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