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Here’s Everything You Didn’t Know You Needed to Know About Running in Cicada Country

The 17-year cicadas are back—and making a lot of noise.

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As the CDC still recommends social distancing of 6-feet apart, billions are showing up and getting in your space in the form of 1.5 million bodies per acre. It’s about to get cozy. The Atlantic has called this the biggest party of 2021. 

That’s right, the 17-year cicadas are coming back. And we haven’t seen them since 2004, so maybe it’s time to get reacquainted with what is happening with this natural phenomenon.  

For runners and other outdoor enthusiasts, you might be feeling like these noisy creatures are crashing your party. Really, Brood X, the name of this distinct group of cicadas that’s emerging this spring, offers an opportunity to be involved in both science and history. 

Dr. Gene Kritsky, author of the new book Periodical Cicadas: The Brood X Edition, wants the help of runners. As travelers on foot, we have the ability to see a great deal while we are outside getting our sweat on. “My colleagues and I, what we’re really concerned about is, ‘Where is Brood X?’”

What he’s asking for is simple. See a cicada? Stop running. Snap a picture. Load it onto his app Cicada Safari and be on your way. 

Kritsky developed the app with the Center for IT Engagement at Mount St. Joseph University, where he is dean of the Behavioral and Natural Sciences, to help collect citizen science data for Brood X. 

Crowdsourcing cicada sightings is not new. It dates back to 1858, when articles in the newspaper would ask people to mail in any notice of a sighting. 

The change in technology has not only allowed more people to participate, but do so in a much easier way for citizens and scientists alike. “In 1987, I did Brood X mapping here in Southwest Ohio by having people call my cicada hotline. And it had so many calls a day, it broke the answering machine,” recalls Kritsky. During the 2004 emergence, the last time Brood X was around, he relied on thousands of emails. 

Now in 2021, he can call on outdoor recreators who are almost certain to have a smartphone on them. “What we want are people to send us pictures of cicadas so that we can map them out quickly and easily. Then every picture is verified by real human eyes, that it is a periodical cicada. It goes on our live map and you can actually watch the emergence live as it starts in Northern Georgia and slowly moves north as the season progresses with time,” he says. 

RELATED: How Runners Can Join the Citizen Science Movement

From a scientific standpoint, the timing of Brood X’s emergence (though predicted) is impeccable. Because during the pandemic, engagement in citizen science has been on the rise. 

Kritsky and his colleagues were able to test the app last year, at the peak of the stay-at-home orders, in preparation for this year. In that time they received almost 8,000 photo submissions for Brood VIII and Brood IX cicadas. He’s anticipating 50,000 for Brood X. 

Ready to get out and start looking for cicadas? Here are 4 more things to know before you go.

Are Cicadas Harmful?

There are a lot of reasons why you might find them unsettling: It could be the buggy red eyes. The way that they might fly directly into your head. Or the fact that they used to be referred to as locusts might have you transcending into visions of swarms and plagues. 

But in reality, they don’t bite or sting. They don’t carry any sort of disease. They won’t carry away your children, Kritsky jokes. They’re not the most graceful fliers (due to the heaviness of their wings), so they really don’t mean to hit and startle you as they attempt to relocate. 

They might be annoying, but fear not. 

Map of Brood X for 2021 Photo: Courtesy Gene Kritsky

When and Where Can You See Cicadas in 2021?

The three 17-year cicada species that make up this brood will emerge in April or May, depending on when the ground temperature hits the mid 60s. Expect to see them around for about six weeks. 

The brood is found in 15 eastern states and will start emerging in the southern states first, followed by southern Indiana and Ohio, and finally northern Indiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. 

They can be found near trees. Females prefer to lay their eggs near a tree in full sunlight that is surrounded by low vegetation. So it’s not uncommon to see them in your yard, parks, cemeteries, greenbelts, or trails. 

Kritsky is especially encouraging hikers and trail runners who spend time on the Appalachian trail to help document the insects. “We don’t really have good records for what’s going on on the Appalachian trail with cicadas,” he says. 

When is the Best Time to Hear Them Sing?

If the sun is out and the weather is nice, expect to hear male cicadas singing their mating call. If you want a break from the noise, try to run when it’s cloudy or rainy. 

What Makes The 17-Year Cicadas So Cool?

They definitely play their part in nature: They provide a natural tree pruning with their egg-laying, and because of that, fruit production in trees tends to increase in the years following. They also increase the quality of the soil. Their emergence is almost a light tilling of the soil and as they decay at the end of the season, their bodies contribute nitrogen and other nutrients back from where they came.  

Beyond their natural benefit, there is an excitement around Brood X. Their emergence is a unique marker in time—something we could all use after the tumultuous year we’re coming out of. If you lived in the eastern states back in 2004, you might recall memories from the last emergence. And 17 years later, you might be sharing those memories with a new generation of people in your life. 

“They really are bugs of history,” says Kritsky.