Cicadas 2021: Are You Ready?

Every 17 years, Brood X cicadas emerges from the ground, make a lot of noise, lay eggs and quickly die off — only to start the process all over again.

Residents of 15 specific states east of the Mississippi (as well as the nation’s capital) have probably heard the warnings by now.

“The cicadas are coming.”
“Prepare yourself.”
“Don’t be caught off guard.”

If this has you running for cover, we have good news. While the cicadas are indeed coming, you don’t need to escape them. Despite the fact that they are noisy, travel in crowds and seem to appear out of nowhere at unusual intervals, these elusive insects are perfectly harmless. The only thing you really need to prepare for is the rare opportunity to see (and hear!) them in action.

What Are Brood X Cicadas and What Do They Do?

Brood X (as in Roman numeral 10) is just one of many families of cicadas in the United States. Known as a periodical brood, they are distinct from other cicadas in that they surface just once every 13 or 17 years (most cicadas surface annually, and their families are fittingly referred to as annual broods).

The next time they surface? Literally any day now — for the first time since 2004, Brood X will begin emerging as early as mid-May 2021. By late June, the emergence will be complete.

Brood X Cicada Tunnels Mark Mortin/Getty Images
Brood X cicadas mud tunnels with a U.S. quarter for size comparison.

Wait, they emerge? As in, emerge from the ground? As strange as it sounds, yes. After 17 years underground, the cicadas will exit the soil to propagate the next generation, setting up shop in trees and bushes.

This is when it gets noisy. The male cicadas will activate their timbals (an abdominal membrane) to produce a shrill, tell-tale sound that is reminiscent of hissing or radio static.

“This is their mating call,” says Spectracide entomologist and senior biologist Josh Matta. “They attract females for courting (with this sound), and they also call other males so they can establish territory.”

After mating occurs, the female cicadas lay eggs in the trees and bushes they’ve been hanging out in since leaving the ground (the adults die not long after — they only live for a few weeks post-emergence; essentially just long enough to lay eggs). Six to 10 weeks later, the eggs hatch. The nymphs then fall to the earth and settle in underground, attaching themselves to tree roots where they stay, feeding on tree sap, until it is time to make their grand re-entrance into the above-ground world.

The pattern of annual cicadas is nearly identical — the only difference is that it happens in yearly intervals (so the nymphs spend much less time underground).

Brood X Cicadas Are Prolific

The fact that Brood X stays underground for so long (and is emerging this year) is only part of the reason everyone is talking about them. The other reason? Sheer numbers.

“This is just a giant group,” says Matta, explaining that giant = billions.

That’s right, billions of cicadas spread across 15 Northeastern states.

Which States Are We Talking?

Look for Brood X cicadas this spring and summer if you live in:

  • Delaware
  • Georgia
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • Tennessee
  • Virginia
  • Washington, D.C.
  • West Virginia

Facts About Cicadas

Aside from their distinctive sound (a sound many people — including Matta, who grew up in Florida where cicadas emerge annually — consider a quintessential insignia of summer), how do you identify cicadas and/or distinguish them from other insects?

Characteristics to Know and Look For

How to Prepare for the Emergence of Brood X Cicadas

Fortunately, while the sights and sounds of Brood X cicadas might be a little bit alarming (especially if you’ve never witnessed their antics before), they are completely innocuous. This means you don’t have to call pest control, find a way to shield your landscaping from their presence or warn your children about the dangers of a cicada bite.

Instead? Enjoy their rare presence, because it won’t be seen (or heard) again until 2038.

Dawn Weinberger
Dawn Weinberger is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon who has contributed to numerous publications and websites over the past 20 years, including RD.com, Glamour, Women's Health, Entrepreneur, and many others. Dawn has a BA in journalism from Western Washington University and is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. She writes about everything from health and medicine to fashion, shopping, and business.