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Swarm of complaints greets rare return of cicadas

By MINLU ZHANG in New York | China Daily | Updated: 2021-06-15 09:58

A female periodical cicada, a member of Brood X, uses its ovipositor to cut into a small tree branch and deposit her eggs on June 3, 2021 in Columbia, Maryland. [Photo/Agencies]

They are back. They grounded a White House press plane for more than six hours. One even went after US President Joe Biden.

"Watch out for the cicadas," Biden told reporters before boarding Air Force One, the presidential plane, swatting away a cicada that had landed on his neck. "One just got me."

Brood X cicadas are back in the US, and billions are swarming over large parts of the eastern US and parts of the Midwest. Except for one species in India and one in Fiji, only the US gets these periodic cicadas. Brood X, as in the Roman numeral 10, comes out every 17 years.

The insects don't have teeth, so they are harmless to humans. But they have been causing problems.

On June 8, a plane set to carry dozens of journalists to Europe to cover Biden's first trip as president abroad was grounded by cicadas at Dulles International Airport. Delta Air Lines said the charter flight was delayed because of the "presence of periodical cicadas" in the auxiliary power unit, or small turbine engine, which rendered the engine unworkable. Delta sent a replacement crew and plane, which left after 3:30 am, about six hours late.

Brood X cicadas flying around in recent weeks have been blamed for causing digestive problems in pets and for a car crash on June 7 in Cincinnati. A cicada flew through an open car window, striking the driver in the face and causing him to crash into a utility pole, local police said. The driver sustained minor injuries, but his car was badly damaged.

The American Automobile Association, or AAA, says drivers in areas where there are cicadas should travel with windows and sunroofs closed.

"While cicadas are in general harmless, they can cause quite a bit of damage externally and internally to vehicles," said Kara Hitchens of the AAA. "Cicadas' attraction to heat can lead to vehicle overheating and airflow issues, particularly if dozens swarm a vehicle."

Mating ritual

It's estimated billions will emerge over the course of their monthlong mating ritual. The number of cicadas has been so large that swarms have shown up on weather radar in Washington DC and Baltimore, the National Weather Service said. It said the insects appeared as "fuzziness", a term usually reserved for light rain or snow, on radar over the weekend.

"I doubt that was cicadas," Clyde Sorenson, professor of entomology at North Carolina State University, told China Daily. "When the cicadas came out, they pretty much just stay in the canopies of the trees. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it seems to me unlikely that they would rise high enough above the canopy to be detected by radar.

"They are really not harmful to much of anything," said Sorenson. "Their main job is reproduction. They don't bite people, they don't attack anything."

He said the most damage they do is when the female lays her eggs under the bark of a twig or branch. The twig splits and dies, and the leaves on the twig turn brown. "But that doesn't seem to really hurt the trees in the long run," he added.

"Brood X of the periodical cicadas is special because it's a particularly large group in terms of geographical extent. It's one of the largest (broods)," said Sorenson. "It occurs in a number of states where there's a pretty large human population, so a lot of people pay attention to it."

The Brood X will be gone by July, not to be seen again until May 2038.

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