COLUMBIA, Md. – Sifting through a shovel load of dirt in a suburban backyard, Michael Raupp and Paula Shrewsbury find their quarry: a cicada nymph.
And then another. And another. And four more.
In maybe a third of a square foot of dirt, the University of Maryland entomologists find at least seven cicadas -- a rate just shy of a million per acre. A nearby yard yielded a rate closer to 1.5 million.
And there's much more afoot. Trillions of the red-eyed black bugs are coming, scientists say.
Within days, a couple weeks at most, the cicadas of Brood X (the X is the Roman numeral for 10) will emerge after 17 years underground. There are many broods of periodic cicadas that appear on rigid schedules in different years, but this is one of the largest and most noticeable. They’ll be in 15 states from Indiana to Georgia to New York; they’re coming out now in mass numbers in Tennessee and North Carolina.
When the entire brood emerges, backyards can look like undulating waves, and the bug chorus is lawnmower loud.
The cicadas will mostly come out at dusk to try to avoid everything that wants to eat them, squiggling out of holes in the ground. They’ll try to climb up trees or anything vertical, including Raupp and Shrewsbury. Once off the ground, they shed their skins and try to survive that vulnerable stage before they become dinner to a host of critters including ants, birds, dogs, cats and Raupp.
It’s one of nature’s weirdest events, featuring sex, a race against death, evolution and what can sound like a bad science fiction movie soundtrack.