Brood X: The Science of Periodical Cicadas

For weeks, we’ve been hearing the hype about Brood X: the group of periodical cicadas due to emerge from their 17 years underground.  As a transplant to my current state, this is the first time I’ve encountered periodical cicadas and I’ve been eagerly awaiting their arrival.  They did not disappoint!   Though delayed by a few weeks due to colder-than-average temperatures, the cicadas finally made their appearance yesterday.  

I have some friends who are as excited about Brood X as I am, while others would like nothing better than to hide inside until the cicadas are gone.  Because I’m a bit obsessed with Brood X (pronounced Brood 10), I decided to compile what I’ve learned from my research into a post so that I could share it with you.

How is Brood X different from annual cicadas?

If you’re anything like me, you may be wondering what all the hype is about.  Don’t cicadas often appear during the summer months?

Yes and no.  There are two broad categories of cicadas: annual cicadas and periodical cicadas.  Annual cicadas are those that become active each year during the warm season, typically between June and August.  Brood X is a type of periodical cicada.  Periodical cicadas only emerge in cycles of 13 or 17 years. Groups of periodical cicadas that emerge at the same time are called broods, and 30 different  broods have been identified.  Brood X cicadas haven’t been seen since 2004.

Where has Brood X been?

Like most insects, cicadas undergo metamorphosis.  It is the immature nymphs that have been living underground for the past 17 years. While underground, they survive by using their mouthparts to suck xylem from tree roots. 

Cicada chimney and tunnel

Once 17 years have passed, it is time for the nymphs to emerge, but they will only do so once the soil temperature has reached a sustained temperature of at least 64 degrees F.  It’s not uncommon to see so-called cicada “chimneys” poking up from the ground in the days and weeks prior to their emergence.  These chimneys are formed as the nymphs begin to tunnel up to the surface.  If you remove the chimney from the ground, you can find a tunnel underneath.

What comes next?

The truly amazing thing about periodical cicadas is how billions of them synchronize their emergence.  One day, I looked in vain for any sign of the cicadas.  The next day, they were literally everywhere.

The first sign that they’d started to emerge was the familiar shed exoskeletons left on trees or blades of grass.  Closer inspection revealed the adult cicadas hiding in the grass.  Not long after, they had disappeared into the treetops.

The nymphs commonly emerge under the cover of darkness or in the early morning.  They will then molt from their hard exoskeletons.   Once they are strong enough,  they will make their way to the treetops.

Cicada Appearance

The Brood X cicadas aren’t as big as I expected them to be.  They are only approximately 2- 2.5 inches long.  

The cicadas are often very pale right after molting. 

Over the course of the next few hours, they will darken and their wings will expand.  Adult cicadas are dark (dark brown to black) with reddish-orange eyes and transparent wings.

If you don’t mind holding a cicada, it is easy to determine its sex when you turn the insect over.  Male cicadas have a domed-shaped abdomen.  The abdomen of a female cicada will come to a point.  Female cicadas also have an ovipositor, which may be extended.

Abdomen of male and female cicadas

What comes next?

After emerging, male and female cicadas will spend the next few weeks in the treetops.  Males attract females by vibrating special abdominal organs called tymbals.  The combined sound of their buzzing calls can reach 80-100 decibels.

After mating, the female cicada uses her ovipositor to slice into small tree branches.  She will then lay 20-30 eggs in the tree. A single female may lay 400-600 eggs before her death.

After 6-10 weeks, the eggs will hatch and new cicada nymphs will fall from the trees to the ground. There they will tunnel down into the earth where they will remain for the next 17 years.

Cicada Fast Facts:

  • Cicadas are herbivores.
  • Cicadas don’t bite.
  • Any damage to plants from cicadas occurs when the female uses her ovipositor to lay her eggs.

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