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The Changing Seasonal Patterns of Insects

Brood X is coming.
Abigail Bassett
Feb 1, 2024 10 min read
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Two massive broods of noisy Cicadas, insects that spend most of their lives underground and emerge every 13 to 17 years, are getting ready to erupt to the surface everywhere from Texas to Rhode Island this spring. Some researchers think that climate change may be causing them to emerge earlier than in previous years and perhaps even confuse them on timing.

Cicadas are only one canary in the coal mine of climate change. The shift in seasonal patterns for other insects is disconcerting as the populations change their seasonal patterns, and range, as climate change continues. The implications of these seasonal changes are more than just temporary according to some research and the shifts could threaten the stability of global food supply in the long term.

About Cicada Broods XIX and XII in 2024

For the first time since the 1800s, two broods, identified as Brood XIX and XII, will emerge simultaneously as soon as the ground temperatures hit 64 degrees Fahrenheit. According to NPR, the two broods contain seven different species of Cicadas and more than a billion insects.

Brood XIX, or the Great Southern Brood, emerges once every 13 years, while Brood XII, known as the Northern Illinois Brood, comes to the surface every 17 years. The last time that both broods, a collection of a number of species of cicadas that move above ground on similar timelines, was 1803, more than 200 years ago.

Cicadas spend most of their lives underground in their nymph form before they come above ground for a very short period of time to mate and then die. Their carcasses pile up around the base of trees and smell like "Limburger cheese," according to Gene Kritsky, quoted in the NPR story. Kritsky is the author of A Tale of Two Broods: The 2024 Emergence of Periodical Cicada Broods XIII and XIX and professor emeritus of biology at Mount St. Joseph University.

The last time that the Northern Illinois Brood surfaced was in 2007, and people in Chicago had to remove their carcasses with shovels because they were so plentiful, according to NPR. More than half the continental United States will be impacted by the cicada eruption, including 15 states in the South and Illinois through Rhode Island in the North. USA Today and the USDA both have maps that show the states that will be impacted the most by the emergence of the bugs. A report at Vox shows that the range goes from eastern Texas and Kansas to southern Louisiana, all the way north and east to the Lakes Region in New York and Rhode Island.

While the massive number of cicadas could be a bit unnerving and exceedingly noisy (their mating calls can be as loud as a jet engine), the bugs are harmless. Experts recommend that you do not use pesticides on them, as that will harm the birds and small animals that gorge themselves on the emerging cicadas and cause even more damage to the environment. They also say that your dogs and cats will likely try to eat cicadas but that pet owners shouldn't worry because cicadas are not harmful to pets.

From Insects, their way and means of living. Artwork by R. E. Snodgrass

The Cicada Broods are Emerging Earlier Thanks to Climate Change

Researchers estimate that the two broods will start to appear between late April and June this year, and according to reporting at The Grist and based on Kritsky's research, that's earlier than it has been in the past.

“Over the past several decades though, periodical cicadas have seemed to pop up earlier and earlier. Kritsky, who has combed through newspapers and diaries recording cicada emergence over the past century, says that before 1950, cicadas most often started their emergence between May 20 and 28; now they’re coming out in the month’s first couple of weeks,” according to The Grist.

This year’s broods are due to surface in late April.

The change in timing is likely because the ground is warmer than it has been in the past, according to a report by Climate Central, by about 8 degrees. According to the report, “The 10-day average temperature across the Brood X region is running 8.0°F warmer than at this time in 1970, and 1.1°F warmer than in 2004.”

While some regions in the U.S. have been in a deep freeze for the last few weeks, most of the rest of the world is facing unseasonably warm temperatures, according to AP. The Arctic, Asia, parts of Africa, the Middle East, and South America are 12 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius) warmer than the late 20th-century average.

A warming globe appears to be pushing the Cicadas emergence earlier in the season–and even confusing entire broods by years, according to Kritsky’s research, and it’s not the first time it’s been disrupted. A report in Scientific American noted that one of the 17-year broods emerged four years early in 2017 as a result of a warming climate.

It’s Not Just Cicadas, Either

It’s not just Cicadas that are being impacted by the shift in the climate, either. Many insect species, including pests like Lantern Flies, have expanded their range as the climate warms.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, spotted lanternflies, which first came to the U.S. in 2014 and made their first appearance in New York City in 2020 (their invasion sparked an entire public service series called “See it? Squish it”), are an invasive species that attack grapes, fruit, and hardwood trees. According to the report, climate change makes their invasion far worse, and it could have wide-ranging impacts on food supplies should lantern flies make it to California, where half of all fruits and vegetables for the nation come from. A 2022 study in the journal Nature noted that without preventative measures, the spotted lanternfly will be in California by 2033.

While bugs may seem insignificant (unless they’re emerging from the ground in the billions like they will be this summer), insects play a tremendous role in the pollination and propagation of plants, as well as ecological stabilization. A study released in December of 2023 by the British Ecological Society notes that more than 60% of the plants and insects are currently out of sync due to climate change–meaning that key interactions like pollination are out of sync.

Even though most of the U.S. will have to deal with the once-in-a-lifetime emergence of Brood X (and it might get messy), cicadas are harmless and serve to nourish an entire population of birds, small mammals and reptiles. However, it's no less important to recognize that their earlier emergence this year is yet another indicator of how deeply climate change is impacting the world. Other insect species that are vital to the pollination and propagation of fruits and vegetables around the world are also being impacted by climate change, and that could have widespread implications for food supplies around the world. Cicadas may just be the tip of the iceberg.

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The Author

Abigail Bassett