The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Tuesday, 18 May 2021 11:51

Brood X is not a bust. Wait for it...

Written by

cicada 1 EVAEva Millwood holds Brood X cicadas on her property in South Knoxville in this submitted photo.

We will see a groundswell of East Tennessee 17-year cicadas as the heat comes on.

We have been hearing about it for weeks, online and on TV and in print. After 17 years underground, millions of cicadas are going to climb out of their burrows, shed their juvenile skins, unfurl their wings and fly up into the trees for one last grand jester of panache and reproduction and death. You even read about Brood X cicadas in Hellbender Press.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency posted a recent Instagram photo of a wild turkey jake with a crop stuffed full of cicadas, and there are reports of cicadas emerging en masse in parts of Tennessee. But your local searching self may ask: Where are they?

Insects are largely ectothermic. That means their body temperature comes from the surrounding air, water or ground temperature. The periodical cicadas need a ground temperature of roughly 68 degrees, eight inches deep to become very active. And we really have not had that for a sustained length of time.

Last week seemed to be destined to be the first big week of the emergence of Brood X. Monday started strong but the weather turned unusually cool for early May with daytime highs in the low 60s. Some of the cicadas started to ease out but it was primarily dozens, not hundreds or thousands, and certainly not 1.5 million per occupied acre. And remember, they are not everywhere. 

Last week I heard from a few that had them in the woods around their homes. I found evidence at Ijams Nature Center and at Seven Islands State Birding Park, where I found dozens of wet chilly Brood Xers. Brrr!

But this week’s forecast looks ideal with daytime temps in the 80s. Cheryl from Seymour told me this afternoon she has finally heard them calling. That ear-splitting squall from where the males collect in a few trees to caterwaul for female attention should be soon to come.

As Bette Davis famously said in “All About Eve,” her 1950 movie, “Fasten your seatbelts; we’re in for a bumpy night.” Although, to be honest, cicadas caterwaul in the daylight.

Stephen Lyn Bales is a natural historian, the author of three UT Press books: Natural HistoriesEphemeral by Nature, Ghost Birds.” He’s also a monthly speaker (via Zoom) for the UT Arboretum Society. He can be reached via email to “hellostephenlyn” at or found on Instagram @stephenlynbales.


cicadas2A cohort of Brood X cicadas is seen on a tree in South Knoxville in this photo.  Courtesy of Eva Millwood

Rate this item
(3 votes)

Related items

  • (News alert: Katy did it!) Seventeen-year cicadas were just an opening act. Now the woods are rolling with the rhythm of our annual insects.

    Bales Common true katydidA true katydid is shown here. It’s one of the main insects that provides a permanent soundtrack to your summer life in the Knoxville area.  Stephen Lyn Bales/Hellbender Press

    What’s that buzz? We thought Brood X was over.

    In case you haven’t noticed: It’s hot!

    The “dog days of summer,” are so called because the season coincides with the period of time when the brightest star Sirius, aka the Dog Star, rises and sets with the Sun: early July through August into September.

    The ancients believed that when Sirius and the Sun were in the sky together, the days were hotter. I think they got it right.

    August has never been that thrilling to me, more of a month to endure. The birds have finished raising their families and are going through their late-season molt. Some of the migratory birds have already started to move south. But that doesn’t mean that our backyards are totally silent because late summer is cacophonous with insects.

    During the day, the trees are filled with large, green cicadas that generally spend three years underground in their larval stage, but they are not all in sync like Brood X was, so each summer we have plenty that mature to collect en masse in our neighborhoods.

    To attract females, the male cicadas do the chainsaw buzzing, but the songs are not made with vocal chords but rather special organs on the sides of their abdomens called “tymbals.” In effect, their sides vibrate loudly.

    Locally in the Knoxville region we have five species of these annual cicadas. Early in the morning and into the afternoon, swamp cicadas (Neotibicen tibicen) are calling. They are also known as morning cicadas because they usually crank up by 10 a.m. with a long uninterrupted rattle that builds in intensity.

  • The 17-year cicada brood left behind some calling cards in the trees

    Tree browning cicadas1 1 Here is some evidence of tree browning and “flagging” caused by the recent appearance of Brood-10 cicadas earlier this summer.  Courtesy Oak Ridge National Laboratory 

    Tree “flagging” is a lingering sign of the 17-year cicadas’ brief time on Earth

    (Alexandra DeMarco is an intern in ORNL’s media relations group.)

    On the road leading to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, drivers may notice that many of the green trees lining the entrance to the lab are dappled with brown leaves. At first glance, the sight isn’t extraordinary, as deciduous tree leaves turn hues of oranges and browns before falling to the ground each autumn.

    Yet, just weeks past the summer solstice, this phenomenon is out of place and is in fact evidence of another natural occurrence: cicada “flagging.”

    This spring, Brood X cicadas emerged from the ground after 17 years and swarmed across the eastern United States, leaving a trail of exoskeletons and echoes of mating calls. Cicadas emerge in such large quantities to withstand predation and successfully maintain their populations, and trees actually play a key role in their life cycle.

    A male cicada attracts a female through a mating call, the sound responsible for cicadas’ shrill hum. After the two mate, the female cicada uses a sharp tubular organ called an ovipositor to slit the bark and split the sapwood of young tree branches to deposit her eggs there. These incisions, however, damage a tree’s vascular system and can cause stalks beyond the incision to die and wither, leaving behind twigs with brown leaves that resemble flags dangling from the trees.

    The eggs then grow into nymphs that make their way to below ground. An oft-repeated misconception is that they’ll stay dormant for 17 years. Actually, during that time, they go through 5 life stages while feeding on the xylem (tree sap) of roots. This may further weaken saplings that were heavily infested with cicadas.

  • The sounds of silence: 17-year cicadas fade away as offspring prepare for 2038 performance
    in News

    Bales Dead cicadas 2021Dead cicadas are seen on concrete in Knoxville at Holston River Park. Their brief sonic reign has come to an end. Photo courtesy of Lyn Bales

    The cicada soundtrack of spring and early summer has come to a quiet end

    “Turn out the lights, the party’s over,” sings country music outlaw Willie Nelson. “They say that all good things must end.”

    Yes. Essentially Cicadapalooza 2021 is over. There may be a few late emerging males hanging on like the last few guys in the bar at closing time with hope against hope that somehow they will get lucky and Miss Wonderful will walk through the door. In this case, a female 17-year cicada clicks and clicks to let the male know she is interested or desperate to complete her mission.

    As a rule of thumb, the entire periodical cicada phenomenon lasts four to six weeks but it is extremely weather dependent. Insects are ectothermic and need warm to hot temperatures to be active.

    I saw my first evidence the cicada emergence had begun at Ijams Nature Center, where I worked for 20 years as a naturalist. Executive director Amber Parker told me where to look for emergence holes: under the sugar maple at the back of the Universal Trail. That was on April 20. I found the small exit tunnels but no cicadas or exuviae. I knew skunks, foxes, crows, jays, owls, dogs, cats, and anything else that will eat a bug quickly consume the first ones above ground.