For Hoppers, Cicadas Don’t Live up to Buzz

Photo by Sophie Axelrod.

After a year that included a global pandemic and ecological events of biblical proportions, expectations were high for swarms of 17-year-old cicadas digging their way out of the Mid-Atlantic soil this spring. Students, many born around the time of the insects’ last emergence, anticipated an inescapable deafening drone emanating from hordes of large bugs blanketing the ground.

But for many in the GDS community, the cicadas, already past their peak, have not lived up to the hype. Contingency plans have gone unused, fly swatters untouched. Residents whose curiosity was piqued by the past months’ chatter were let down by the arthropods’ underwhelming turnout in D.C.

“I thought it would be a lot worse than it was,” freshman Ellie Kessler said. “I thought they’d literally be falling everywhere.” Even though they did not meet her expectations, Kessler has observed many cicadas flying around her house, especially at night.

The GDS administration was also expecting the cicadas’ emergence to be a more disruptive event. “We thought they’d be much worse by now,” said Quinn Killy, the assistant principal for school life. But he explained that most activities either are indoors to begin with or can be easily transferred indoors. 

Some events, such as the end-of-year carnivals on June 10, were slated to take place outdoors no matter the cicadas’ interference. “If there are cicadas all over everything,” Killy joked, “then we’ll set up a fry station and we’ll fry some cicadas and we’ll have a bonus snack!” 

A cicada fry station is unlikely, though, because the influx of insects is already on the decline. Ninth-grade biology teacher Cori Coats explained that since heat triggers their arrival, “emergence was later than was originally anticipated because we had an unseasonably cold spell in the middle of May.” When the heat came, the cicadas hatched. Given that they peak for about two weeks, Coats said, “We’re over the hump.” 

With a 17-year life cycle, Brood X cicadas, the type currently affecting the D.C. area, begin as eggs laid in trees. They spend the majority of their lives, however, under the ground. Once the soil temperature reaches 64 degrees, they come out of the ground and shed their shell. “They emerge as their adult structure but kind of as if they’d been freeze dried or freeze packaged,” Coat’s said. “They actually have to self-inflate.” They spend their two to four weeks aboveground—the last weeks of their life—mating and laying the next generation’s eggs.

The Brood X cicadas can be found across the Mid-Atlantic, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee and in states as far south as Georgia. According to Coats, D.C. is the cicadas’ epicenter in the Mid-Atlantic.

Coats lived in Tenleytown during the last cicada emergence 17 years ago and remembers seeing them flying around her neighborhood. The number of cicadas she saw then, though, is nothing compared to those around her house in Silver Spring today. “My backyard is covered,” she said. “We have to sweep off the back porch every day because there are all these little shells that have accumulated.” 

Because Tenleytown has more pavement, it has fewer cicadas than more suburban environments like Silver Spring. Insects require permeable surfaces to lay their eggs, Coats explained.

The turf field and garage are also reasons for the underwhelming cicada population on the GDS campus. About fifteen years ago, when the new wing of the high school was being built, Coats said, the project to construct the high school parking garage was called “the big dig.” Coats recalled, “They excavated thousands of tons of soil to create that underground parking garage and then the turf field on top. And so they probably inadvertently excavated the eggs,” decreasing the number of cicadas on campus.   

Sophomore Mia Chévere said her neighborhood in Prince George’s County, Maryland, underwent a similar process. “We live in a new-construction type neighborhood so all the dirt has been overturned,” she said. “We barely get any near our house.”

The construction of the new lower-middle school campus, though, likely had a minimal effect on cicadas because the old Safeway and its parking lot were already paved. 

Although the emergence of cicadas has not been the epic event many GDS students were anticipating, Coats still wishes she had integrated it more in her classes. “For only coming out every seventeen years, I regret that I haven’t given them more time in my classroom,” she said. “There’s a lot of richness that can come out of living through this experience from a scientific perspective.”

The Brood X cicadas won’t return again until 2038, when today’s newborns are in high school. Perhaps tempered expectations will let them better appreciate the chorus of cicadas.

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