They’re somewhat nasty looking. Beady red eyes, crawling up trees and fences, flying in the air awkwardly as if drunk. You know what I am writing about – Brood X cicadas. Billions of them along parts of the eastern United States, emerging after 17 years of waiting underground, with only one goal: climb to a comfy tree branch and get some hot action without becoming bird food on the way.
If lucky enough, they’ll mate (imagine the disappointment of being a teenage nerd like I was and striking out after 17 years underground), expire within two weeks, and their offspring will bury themselves in the ground, to emerge 17 years hence in May 2038 and repeat the cycle.
I read that each female can produce 400 to 600 eggs. The females don’t really “die” — I think they just don’t want to take care of that many offspring. Face it, no one has that kind of time and energy to feed that many children. You may have heard them — whereas the mating call of a human male sounds something like, “Hey, babe! Hey babe!” — theirs is very similar to the sound of a Star Trek phaser (lasting all day long).
Two of the most evolutionarily successful cicada broods are those with cycles of 13 and 17 years. Those two numbers are prime — that is, the only numbers that they are divisible by in order to get an integer are one and the number itself. Many of their predators have smaller life cycles, which gives the long-period prime number cicadas an advantage. If a predator had a life cycle of five years, then Brood X would overlap their cycle every 105 years (5 multiplied by 17). A cicada with a cycle of two years would overlap a five-year predator every 10 years. That’s a lot of cicada burgers for the predator. A cicada has only one purpose: to make more cicadas. Evolutionarily well-adapted, but dull. The same could be said about prehistoric humans, at least up until the invention of the wheel, fire and Hot Pockets.
I remember the first time I was aware of Brood X. It was summer 1987, and these critters would fly blindly into anything: cars, pedestrians, trees, bicyclists (I was cicada-bombed plenty — a cicada diving into a bicycle helmet’s air vents and struggling to escape is near the top of this OCD fellow’s freak-out list). I had been married less than one year, was a young 29 years old, and had no children. We were three years from buying our first house, and four years from having our first child. We could stay up late, have some drinks, and still be at work on time the next morning. Internet? Never heard of it. I remember very little of the ’80s, so I must have had a good time.
The next appearance of this brood was in May 2004. Since the 1987 emergence, I had bicycled across the U.S., we all survived Y2K, the Twin Towers were no longer standing, George W. Bush was running for his second term as president, I had fathered two daughters, and my youngest step-daughter (to be) was three weeks old. The “dot com bubble” had ended three years prior. Facebook was only a couple of months old. There was no such thing as “deep-fake” videos. Back then, nobody liked Hillary Clinton (OK, some things never change).
This time around, I’m in my early 60s. I lost my first wife to cancer, and found a second perfect lady and wed her. We (well, most of us) survived COVID-19. And so many more changes, too many to go into.
Each emergence of Brood X cicadas is greeted by a new human generation. If I am still here in 17 years hence, I will be 80. What will our lives be like then? Our children? Their children? Will we have Hot Pockets that taste good? Nah, some things never change.
William Smith lives in Mount Airy, where the cicadas are almost as loud as the gunshots and the speeding ATVs. Send him annoying cicada pictures at email@example.com.