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A Brood X cicada that failed to shed

A Brood X cicada that failed to shed its nymphal skin is seen on a tree on the North Lawn of the White House in Washington. Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster

By now, you’ve probably heard at least one good cicada story. If you’ve lived long enough on Long Island, you probably have at least one good cicada story to tell.

Although you might prefer to call them bad stories. Unfortunately, that’s the way it goes with the periodic cicadas that are all the rage elsewhere in the eastern U.S. and sometimes on Long Island.

They are hauntingly beautiful or disturbingly ugly, a culinary delicacy or downright disgusting, magnets for curiosity or revulsion. Utterly harmless to humans, their sheer numbers spark amazement or fear. It depends on your perspective.

If periodic cicadas could write, oh the personal narratives they could pen. Living underground for years, digging tunnels, drinking sap from the roots of trees and plants, they emerge with precision every 13 or 17 years when the soil temperature is just right. Then they shed their exoskeletons and look to mate, with females laying eggs in the crevices of trees — if they are not eaten first by predators. All manner of birds and mammals gorge themselves on cicadas, whose survival depends on their massive numbers — billions of the bugs in some broods in some years in some places.

This year is a Brood X year. But you probably knew that.

One critter landed on President Joe Biden as he prepared Wednesday to fly to Europe. The night before, the press plane accompanying Biden was delayed for seven hours when cicadas filled the plane’s engines. Last weekend, they showed up on weather radar in the Washington area.

By now, they should have emerged on Long Island.

Brood X did so, gloriously, in parts of the Island in 1987, but its numbers fell off in its next 17-year emergence in 2004, an ominous but familiar 21st-century story. Elias Bonaros, a cardiologist from Bayside by profession but a lover and seeker of periodic cicadas by passionate avocation, is among those who this year saw some exoskeletons in Bohemia County Park. And he found a nymph in East Setauket, but he and other experts say the nymph was likely an "acceleration" of Brood XIV, Long Island's dominant brood that is due to reemerge in 2025.

"Brood XIV has been very strong," Bonaros said in an interview from Princeton, New Jersey, where he has been immersing himself in a robust Brood X emergence. "Hopefully, they'll be very strong in four years."

His tone, optimistic but wistful, tells the story. Long Island has hosted five broods of periodic cicadas, but all five are in decline. Two are believed extinct. The demise of Brood X, if it has happened in 2021, would make three.

"Hopefully, we’ll see them again in 2038," Bonaros said. "It may be similar, it may be less, or unfortunately, we may not see them at all."

Some culprits are familiar, others hypothetical. Chris Simon ticks them off.

A University of Connecticut professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who has studied periodic cicadas since her Stony Brook University graduate student days in the 1970s, Simon says habitat change plays a big part — think the conversion of farmland and other natural spaces into malls and parking lots. So does climate change and its unreliable warming/cooling patterns. Invasive bird species who feast on cicadas, the airborne drift of pesticides, and unseasonable cold during past emergences also could have impact.

It's worrisome, like any species extinction is worrisome. Besides being an aboveground treat, periodic cicadas are food for underground predators like moles, Simon said. They return nutrients to the soil and help aerate it when they emerge. Other benefits are not yet understood. And, as Simon noted, "They also have aesthetic value as a spectacular phenomenon of nature."

"Spectacular" is not an ill-chosen word, not when 10,000 cicadas have been known to inhabit a single tree. Bonaros compared the racket they make to a UFO. It's an apt analogy. There's nothing else on Earth quite like one of these emergences. Such singularity is worth preserving — and lamenting when it no longer exists.

Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.

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