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Everything You Wanted to Know — Or Not — About Cicadas in D.C.

Have you seen the cicadas?

After lying low underground for 17 years, they are boring upward, coming out of the ground, feeling the warmth of the D.C. sunshine and shedding their crisp cases. They’re lumbering over the rocks and mulch, climbing the trees and walls. It’s cicada mating season. By late May, the insects are at their peak. We’ll keep seeing them through late June.

And we’ll hear them, too. That’s the sharp, weird, high-pitched buzz emitted from the trees, mainly across the northern areas of the city. Through their singing, they find other cicadas and reproduce. It’s a thing that only happens in the eastern United States, and no place else on the planet.

Fungus Among Them

There are 15 broods of these big, harmless bugs throughout the eastern United States. The huge group of cicadas emerging in and around D.C. this year is called Brood X (pronounced “Brood Ten”), and they can be spotted from Indiana down to Georgia.

It’s said there are billions of cicadas in Brood X. Billions? On account of the cold nights we’ve had well into May this year, there might not be quite so many. And those chilly nights, it turns out, are the least of their troubles. Cicadas are up against a terrible fate, says “Bug Guy” Michael Raupp. They have to cope with the dreaded Massospora fungus. This spongy stuff is full of the same psychoactive ingredients that occur in amphetamines and hallucinogenic mushrooms. It expands inside the insects’ bodies, destroys their limbs, and causes them to engage in manic sex — until their genital fall off, literally. As though they didn’t have enough of a challenge, waiting 17 years for the chance to mate!

Cicada Swag

Cicadas at the Tenleytown Metro stop… How inspiring, right? Shop Made in D.C. is selling cicada art on shirts, designed by Carmonamedina. In the design, the bugs are seen descending on Tenleytown to go shopping. Gotta love cicadas on scooters.

Designers have also come up with cicada garden swag, dishes adorned with cicadas, and cicada door art.

Want a swig with your swag? For beer fans in suburbia, there’s a cicada-themed IPA called BrewdX at the Old 690 Taproom in Purcellville, Virginia. It’s available, appropriately, through June. (We trust there are no fungus-spiked bugs in the beer.)

The Next Cicada Event: 2038

Next time you hear that screaming buzz in the sky, you’ll know you’re in Brood X territory. Their presence is on the rise, because these insects are true summer lovers. The most likely

places to find them (other than shopping in Tenleytown, of course) are older parks, and places without too much new construction over the past 17 years. Oh, and on your car wheels.

In June, after much of the mating is over, the cicadas will lay their eggs. Their brief season in the sun will be over, and they’ll fall from the poles, trees, car wheels, fences and Metro signs. If you see them on the ground, there’s no cause for alarm. Decaying cicadas fertilize the soil.

The show put on by Brood X is free, and it lasts another month. It’s a time to celebrate (and maybe mourn) the cicada mating ritual until the next generation emerges from the ground in 2038. To pique our interest, WTOP News has just published a beautiful gallery of local photos of the D.C. cicada population. Some local photographers caught the bugs right in the process of shedding their cases! And Cicada Mania tells much more about the cicadas if you want to take a deep dive while the season is still in full swing.

Way more exciting than the ho-hum cherry blossoms, isn’t it?

Supporting References

Mark Hand, Arlington, VA Patch: 17-Year Cicadas: ‘Bottomless’ Supply in Virginia and DC Really Is (updated May 21, 2021). Available at: https://patch.com/virginia/arlington-va/17-year-cicadas-bottomless-supply-virginia-really

Beth Dalbey for Patch National News: Billions, Yes Billions, of 17-Year Cicadas Will Emerge In 2021 (updated Mon, Mar 22, 2021). Available at: https://patch.com/us/across-america/billions-yes-billions-17-year-cicadas-will-emerge-2021

Sophia Barnes for NBC News: How Long Will the 17-Year Cicadas Stay? Here Are Answers to Your Top Questions About Brood X (updated May 22, 2021). Available at: https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/faq-what-to-know-about-brood-x-cicadas-in-dc-maryland-virginia/2655658/

Justin Hinton for ABC News: With 90-Degree Days, Cicadas Will Take Over the D.C. Area (May 22, 2021). Available at: https://wjla.com/news/local/90-degree-days-cicadas-dc-area

Jacqueline Tynes for the Washingtonian: 6 Cicada-Themed Goodies to Bug Out Over (May 11, 2021). Available at: https://www.washingtonian.com/2021/05/11/cicada-themed-items/

And as linked.

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