Volunteer cicada trackers are preparing to become part of one of the oldest citizen science efforts in the U.S. as Brood X emerges across several states.
Cicada Safari Smartphone mapping app
Join Cicada Safari to help map the 2021 emergence of the periodical cicada Brood X.
Photograph and submit the periodical cicadas to Cicada Safari, and after the photos are verified, they will be posted to the live map. Cicada Safari was created by Dr. Gene Kritsky working with the Center for IT Engagement at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati.
There are three species of 17-year cicadas. They are named Magicicada septendecim, Magicicada cassini and Magicicada septendecula.
There are four species of 13-year cicadas. They are named Magicicada tredecim, Magicicada neotredecim, Magicicada tredecassini, and Magicicada tredecula.
• Groups of cicadas that share the same emergence years are called broods. The brood number is usually given in Roman numerals. Charles Marlatt, an entomologist working for the Department of Agriculture, designated that all the cicadas that emerged in 1893 and at 17-year intervals thereafter as Brood I [one]. The cicadas that emerged in 1894 were called Brood II [two] and so on. The 13-year cicadas that emerged in 1894 were called Brood XVIII [eighteen] and so on. The cicadas that will this year in 2021 belong to Brood X [ten].
• Not all cicadas count the years correctly. In 2000, based on collections of cicada nymphs during their 17 years underground, Dr. Gene Kritsky predicted that thousands of cicadas would emerge four years early in May of 2000. That did, indeed, occur, and in five locations the numbers that emerged were so great that the cicadas sang, mated, and laid eggs.
The natural question that followed, was will these early offspring keep a 13-year life cycle or shift back to 17 years? In 2013, a few hundred cicadas emerged, but the adults were all eaten by predators and no singing and mating occurred.
It was a different matter in 2017, when more of the offspring of the early 2000 cicadas emerged and were joined by newly accelerated Brood X cicada that were emerging four years before the next Brood X emergence in 2021. In 2017, there were 33 locations in SW Ohio where periodical cicadas emerged in numbers large enough to satiate predators, sing, mate, lay, eggs, and the eggs hatch. This is now a new population of Brood VI in SW Ohio. We will be waiting until 2034, to see if this population becomes permanent.
• Only the male cicadas sing. They have sound-producing structures called tymbals on either side of the abdomen.
• It is easy to tell male cicadas from female cicadas. To do so turn the cicada over: the female will have a groove in which is found the ovipositor; the male’s abdomen will terminate with a square shaped flap
• Adult cicadas do not eat solid food, but do drink fluids to avoid dehydration.
• Adult cicadas do not sting or bite humans, and they do not carry diseases. But they can harm young trees when female cicadas lay their eggs in the tree’s new growth. It is not recommended that you spray to kill the cicadas, because they fly into a tree to lay their eggs and spraying will not kill these incoming cicadas. If you have a young tree, you can loosely wrap the branches with cheesecloth to keep the female from laying her eggs.
• Pesticides are not effective at controlling periodical cicadas. They are not pests and do not need to be killed.
• Periodical cicada years are quite beneficial to the ecology of the region. Their emergence tunnels in the ground acts as a natural aeration of the soil. The large number of adult cicadas provides a food bonanza to all sorts of predators, which can have a positive impact on their populations. The females’ egg-laying in trees is a natural pruning of the trees that results in the tree producing more flowers and fruit in the following year. Finally, after the cicadas die their decaying bodies contribute a massive amount of nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil.
• Periodical cicadas are best eaten when they are still white, and they taste like cold canned asparagus. Like all insects, cicadas have a good balance of vitamins, are low in fat, and, especially the females, are high in protein.
• Periodical cicadas are often incorrectly called locusts. Locusts are grasshoppers and cicadas are more closely related to aphids than grasshoppers. The term locust started to be used around 1715 in the English colonies, when citizens tried to make sense of the cicada emergences by equating them with the biblical plagues and the fact the John-the-Baptist ate locusts. The Native Americans also ate cicadas.
What are periodical cicadas?
Periodical cicadas are insects that belong to the order Hemiptera, which includes the stink bugs, bed bugs, aphids, and cicada families.
What makes periodical cicadas so fascinating, is their long life cycle. After hatching, the immature cicadas, called nymphs, spend 17 or 13 years underground feeding on roots, before emerging in May and transforming into adult cicadas.
Periodical cicadas were first recorded by the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony in 1634, but they were known to the Native Americans for centuries prior to European contact. Brood X was first reported in 1715 in Philadelphia.
The photos below show a cicada nymph in the fall of its 16th year, a 17-year old nymph that has just emerged from the ground, an adult cicada that has not yet completed it transformation, a large number of adult cicadas on a shrub, and the empty shells that remain after the adult emerges.
To Map Billions of Cicadas, It Takes Thousands of Citizen Scientists
At the end of May, Dan Mozgai will spend his vacation from his day job chasing cicadas. The bugs won’t be hard to find; in about a week, billions of the beady-eyed crawlers from Brood X will start coming up from their 17-year-long underground, blanketing parts of 15 states in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest with their cacophony of shrill mating calls.
Mozgai isn’t an entomologist — he does online marketing for DirecTV. But since 2007, he’s worked closely with academic researchers to track various broods of periodical cicadas, as part of one of the oldest citizen science efforts in the U.S.
He’ll be joined by ten of thousands of other volunteers across the Brood X territory who will use the mobile app Cicada Safari, where users can add geotagged photos and videos onto a live map, as dozens of student researchers behind the scenes verify each submission. Videos will be especially helpful this year, as it provides audio data for the researchers, says Gene Kritsky, an entomologist at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, and the creator behind Cicada Safari. He’s been testing the new app with smaller broods for two years in anticipation for this moment.
Brood X, is one of the largest, and mostly broadly distributed geographically, of periodical cicadas, which emerge every 13 or 17 years. They’ll stick around for just a few weeks, through June, to mate and lay eggs.
“With the smartphone technology and the GPS location services, it was just a perfect way to do citizen science,” Kritsky says. Some 87,000 people have signed up as of the beginning of May, and they’ve already documented several early risers, especially around Cincinnati and Washington, D.C. — two of the expected hotspots.
The observations will help researchers draw the territorial boundaries for Brood X, which, when compared against historical maps, can help them understand how the brood has changed over time, and how climate change and urbanization affect their life cycles.
Mozgai, a cicada “super fan,” will use a more sophisticated GPS-enabled datalogger called the “Map-O-Matic,” designed just for tracking cicadas. (He’s still waiting for his in the mail.) He plans to drive around New Jersey on sunny days from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. “That’s the timeframe within which cicadas sing,” he says. For each sighting, he’ll record the location’s exact GPS coordinates using the tracker, along with other information like elevation and temperature, and also the volume of singing.
He says he knew very little about the insects back in 1996 when he created Cicada Mania, which at the time looked like little more than an illustrated document. “I was interested in nature and science before that, but I wasn’t wasn’t passionate about them,” he says. The site caught the attention of other web-savvy cicada hobbyists, whose emails and comments started fueling Mozgai’s eventual passion for what he describes on the site as “the greatest insect in the world.” Two decades later, it’s become a bastion for cicada aficionados, with more than a dozen contributors and with a well-stocked merch hub for those looking for “Keep calm, they’re only 17-year cicadas” shirts, or a trucker hat with the site’s graffiti-like logo.
It also includes an entire section dedicated to tracking Brood X, with a list of sightings and tips for the best time to go out looking for them.
Researchers have relied on citizen cicada reports for more than a century as they studied their emergence, and the environmental and climate factors that affect them. Their methods have evolved over the years, allowing them to cast an increasingly wide net for volunteer submissions.