Even on an Air Force base tarmac, a cicada landed on the president’s neck.
The spectacular emergence of the — with some 1.5 million of the harmless insects emerging per acre in some places — has resulted in cicadas landing on people’s shirts, arms, hair, and…beyond. But the bugs have no real interest in people: After 17 years of munching on roots underground, the brood emerges to hastily mate and lay eggs.
So what’s going on? When cicadas emerge, they seek out trees, the places where they often congregate, mate, and ultimately lay eggs on the ends of branches. And to a cicada, trees and people have similarities.
“Cicadas land on people because they strongly resemble trees,” explained Eric Day, an entomologist and cicada expert at Virginia Tech. “It’s rare to see a cicada on the ground.”
“Insects that utilize trees are strongly attracted to upright dark silhouettes and a human standing on an open area is close enough,” added Day. “So cicadas and wood-boring beetles will go right towards any dark upright object.”
That’s why if you’re standing on a flat runway, like President Biden, a cicada may be keen to find you. “You might be the tallest structure out there,” mused Day.
The sheer number of cicadas that emerge over a short time in spring also likely plays a role in the cicada landings, noted George Hamilton, the chair of the Department of Entomology at Rutgers University. With potentially millions of bugs around, a structure-seeking insect is more likely to find you.
Cicadas are indeed cacophonous as males vigorously vibrate their abdomens to attract mates. But they are no threat to people. And the cicadas’ short-lived emergence is a great boon to wildlife.
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“Birds snatch them up, mammals easily spot them, and insect predators consume their fill,” Robert Furey, a behavioral ecologist and entomologist at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, told Mashable in 2020 when Brood IX emerged. “Every predator with a taste for cicada flesh takes advantage of the easy prey.”
Brood X has emerged in parts of the Midwest, Southeast, and the mid-Atlantic, as . Though human development and urbanization in some places may slash the number of cicadas in some places (the bugs can’t bore through pavement), President Biden can probably attest the emergence has been robust in the Capital region.
“It’s an incredibly amazing biological phenomenon,” Day previously told Mashable.