Cicadas strike back four years early. But why?

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Scientists are puzzled by the unexpected appearance of cicadas in the Washington, D.C. area this spring. Photo courtesy Mike Raupp

Scientists are puzzled by the unexpected appearance of cicadas in the Washington, D.C. area this spring. Photo courtesy of Mike Raupp

If you live in the Washington, D.C. area, you’ve no doubt heard the buzz over cicadas this week — or perhaps the buzz of cicadas themselves. That’s because the region’s bugs are out and about in the region a full four years early.

Cicadas emerge in what scientists call “broods.” The biggest brood, known as Brood X, wasn’t due in the nation’s capital until 2021. So to mark the unusual mass appearance, NewsHour science producers Nsikan Akpan and Julia Griffin joined entomologist Mike Raupp — also known as the Bug Guy — at the University of Maryland to get insights on the flying critters and their unique lifestyles.

(We’d should mention that no cicadas — or science producers — were harmed in the making of this video, despite an uninvited cicada landing and crawling on Griffin’s blouse mid-interview.)

Raupp explained only Brood VI was expected this year. But those bugs normally emerge in Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin. He had a different theory on the D.C. visitors.

“Sometimes these cicadas do a time jump,” University of Maryland entomologist Mike Raupp told the NewsHour. “They’ll emerge four years early. We think these might be an acceleration of the Brood X cicadas.”

But without more study, it is hard to say what’s behind the jump.

“I don’t really think we have enough data just now to be able to tell if this if this is a climate change phenomenon or not,” Raupp said, “The other question I have is, if it were indeed climate change advancing our Brood X here, we might expect to see it over a broader range.”

In the meantime, this batch of cicadas and their vibrating tymbals — the organ that makes their distinctive hum — will continue to call to each other in hopes of finding a mate. Despite spending more than a decade underground, they have a few, precious weeks to survive the onslaught of birds, squirrels and other predators in order to reproduce.

Good luck out there, bug friends.

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