Kristin Jayd is ready to relive her childhood memories this summer.
Growing up in Miami, Jayd said she became accustomed to the sounds of cicadas every year. When she heard the drone of the insects in the Everglades’ pine rockland ecosystem, she knew it was time for lazy summer days.
Now an entomology graduate student at the University of Maryland, Jayd’s summer memories will be brought back to life this year — only this time, there will be hundreds more cicadas, and they will be much louder.
Beginning in mid-May, almost all of Maryland will see the emergence of the Brood X periodical cicadas, which emerge every 17 years. Brood X appears in 15 states in the eastern part of the United States, and this year, the D.C. metro area will be a cicada hotspot.
When in large groups, the small, black bugs can produce piercing sounds as loud as 100 decibels — around the same level as a motorcycle. The area could see up to 1.5 million cicadas per acre, said Dr. Paula Shrewsbury, an entomology professor at this university.
And insect experts at this university are more than ready for the bug bonanza.
At the beginning of the spring semester, Shrewsbury and Dr. Mike Raupp — also an entomology professor — started teaching a graduate seminar course, ENTM798N: Adventures in Extension – Periodical Cicadas. The two professors and the eight graduate students taking the class created the Cicada Crew, an outreach effort to teach those in the area about the exciting prospects of Brood X.
“The more you learn about [insects], the cooler they are,” Shrewsbury said. “The purpose of the class is to try to get that excitement and that knowledge out there.”
So far, the Cicada Crew has created a website with cicada pictures and answers to frequently asked questions about the six-legged creatures. They also plan on launching and building their social media accounts and YouTube channel.
The crew members are also in the process of giving presentations and talks about cicadas to area organizations — a task Jayd thinks is actually easier during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t have to drive two hours to another venue … and we can meet more of those requests now,” Jayd said. “So, in some ways, COVID may have opened up other opportunities for us.”
In collaboration with this university’s Entomology Student Organization, the Cicada Crew also has a merchandise store that offers everything from Brood X-themed stickers to baby onesies.
Because of the pandemic, Shrewsbury, Raupp and the students are limited in the hands-on research they can do with cicadas together this summer. But they plan to stay involved in the emergence with Cicada Safari, a crowdsourcing app where insect enthusiasts and everyday individuals can come together, Shrewsbury said.
Cicada Safari is like “Snapchat for cicadas,” Jayd said. Collecting crowdsourced data about the cicadas is important because of their long lifespans, which make studying them with traditional data difficult, she said.
“It’s a citizen science project, so we want people to take pictures of cicadas when they see them, and then you upload the picture,” Shrewsbury said. “It basically gives the researchers data on the timing of when the cicadas are out and then the geographic distribution.”
Ali Shokoohi, another graduate student on the Cicada Crew, normally doesn’t do research focusing on cicadas. But he said he couldn’t pass up an opportunity to learn more about Brood X and to, like Jayd, reminisce about his childhood.
“I do have some faint memories of it from when I was a child, and I thought it was something really cool when I was a kid,” Shokoohi said.
Jayd, too, normally focuses on other insects — right now, she’s looking at parasitoid wasps, the biggest of which are just over one inch long. But the cicadas have provided her with a refreshing opportunity to zoom out a bit.
“They’re big and they’re loud and they’re everywhere, so they’re unavoidable,” Jayd said. “It just seems like an opposite.”
People often wrongly associate cicadas with locusts, so it’s natural for some individuals to be afraid of them, Shrewsbury said. But the Cicada Crew wants to dispel misconceptions about the insects.
“People sometimes can get really worried or scared about them, when really they’re harmless,” Shokoohi said, adding that cicadas cannot eat away at plants and do not bite humans. They provide important nutrients for their predators and act as a rich fertilizer source when they die, he said.
For now, the Cicada Crew will continue to educate the masses and wait for the day when the cicadas emerge to fill the air and ground.
This day will be a highlight for Jayd, representing her recent knowledge and excitement about cicadas converging with her memories.
“I’m most looking forward to the day when… I look out the window while I’m in a Zoom meeting and see that it’s happening,” she said. “We’ve become so familiar with the scientific literature … that I think it will sneak up on me, but there are actually going to be literally millions of bugs out my window in just a few weeks.”