They have red eyes, yellow wings and are known only by the mysterious name “Brood X.” But these creatures aren’t visitors from another planet – they’re in America’s backyards and parks.
Since mid-May, the D.C. area has been inundated by an infestation of cicadas that are swarming everywhere from Tennessee to New York. Every 17 years, the Brood X cicadas crawl up from underground and flood the region for about a month.
Experts said the reason Brood X is garnering so much attention is because they are more visible than their relatives.
“They flood the area all at once to overcome predators,” said Frank Fulgham, program manager of the Office of Plant and Pest Services for the Virginia Department of Agriculture. “It is their way of protection.”
D.C. residents should expect to see more of these creatures, although not in the near future. The Brood X is a periodical cicada that appears on a 17-year cycle. There are a total of 14 different brood cycles of cicadas that appear in various cycles.
“There are many cicadas,” Fulgham said. “Some types overlap. In later summer we will see the Dog-Day cicada, a common annual cicada.”
On the GW campus in Foggy Bottom, the cicadas are noticeable but scarce. But in less urban areas, outdoor life is nearly intolerable to some because of the insects.
“My parents live in Bethesda, and I was home to visit friends and could not believe how many cicadas there were,” senior Julia Rosen said.
“There must be a thousand times as many (cicadas) in Bethesda as there are in downtown.”
“My parents haven’t been able to use the backyard much,” she added. “We have a lot of trees in our yard and with all of the trees in the neighborhood there are so many.”
Those who live in the suburbs and commute to the city said they notice a stark contrast in the cicada populations.
“The cicadas are so much worse out of the city,” said Jenn Char, a professional who works on L Street and lives in nearby Alexandria, Va. “They are in the lobby, sometimes in the elevator (and) the stairs, too.”
Char said most of the cicadas she has noticed in D.C. are dead and scattered around the ground, while the ones she sees in Alexandria are “alive and kicking.”
“I heard from friends that they are worse on tennis courts, and I thought that sounded crazy,” Char said. “So I went to the courts to play, and they were everywhere. We had to clear them off the court just so we could play.”
“I hit so many with my tennis racquet,” Char continued. “I hit more cicadas than tennis balls.”
Char, like other residents, said she was astonished by the loud screeching noises the creatures produce. Entomologists said male cicadas are the ones making all of the noise while the females lay eggs.
“When I was driving on the GW Parkway it was so loud – I could not believe how loud they are,” she said. “You only hear them that loud out in the suburbs.”
Other suburban residents have resorted to leaving the area just to enjoy their summer weekends. Mark Sump, a Chevy Chase, Md., resident who works in Foggy Bottom, said his family has retreated to their farm in Keswick, Va., to avoid the big-eyed bugs.
“We always spend a lot of time there, but since there aren’t any cicadas out there we will spend all the time we can out there,” he said.
Sump said that the cicadas have already disturbed some of his family’s summer plans.
“Normally we grill outside this time of year, but we haven’t grilled out because of the bugs,” he said.
Little is being done to combat the infestation, experts said, because the creatures do not create a biological threat. Fulgham said Virginia officials have no plans to fight the burgeoning cicada population and that there is no need to do so.
“The cicadas don’t cause any long-term damage,” he said.
Although female cicadas cut slits into trees to lay eggs, most trees are able to withstand the minimal damage.
“The main harm is tearing of twigs and ends of branches causing flagging tips and pieces of branch ends to fall off,” Fulgham said.
This process could cause damage to new trees or trees that are already in poor health but poses no serious risk to mature trees.
Since the cicada is “not specific to one type of tree,” its effects are “not considered something widespread like a forest pest,” Fulgham said.
While there is a degree of natural variability between cycles of Brood X cicadas, this year’s bunch is not much different from the cicadas of 1987.
Fulgham said the reason the cicadas have affected residents so greatly over the last two weeks is because they are so visible and seemingly unique with their cycles.
“Other insects do similar things, have cycles, but they don’t tend to come in contact with people like the cicadas do,” Fulgham said.
Gaye Williams, an entomologist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said the arrival of the cicadas should be celebrated.
“This is a unique opportunity to see something that you only get to see four times in your life if you are lucky,” Williams said.
Williams added that the arrival of Brood X is a positive and fun time for many people who enjoy the insects, including those who eat them.
“In 1987 I was at a ‘cicada soir?e’ and I ate some there. I don’t want to have any more this time,” Williams said.
Eating cicadas causes no harm to humans and dogs, Williams said, but some animals can get sick from eating too many bugs.
“It was just a novelty,” she said. “The cicadas were served with cocktail sauce. I know many people will eat them this time too.”