The only national park site dedicated to the performing arts has been quiet for over a year, but a new chorus of singers is stealing the show at this Virginia venue: a feisty, sex-crazed swarm of Brood X cicadas.
Noted entomologist Michael J. Raupp joins host Todd Christopher to discuss the noisy return of periodical cicadas to Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts — and the life lessons these incredible insects can teach us.
You can read more about Brood X cicadas in the national parks in the Spring 2021 issue of National Parks magazine.
Original theme music by Chad Fischer
The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. Learn more at npca.org
Todd Christopher: They say good things come to those who wait, but this is a whole nother level. After 17 years underground, Brood X cicadas are back and striking up the band. And at one national park site in Virginia, the show must go on. I'm Todd Christopher, and this is The Secret Lives of Parks.
Todd Christopher: Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts lies just outside the Beltway on more than 100 acres of gently rolling meadows and woodlands. It was originally Manahoac land, long before the arrival of the Europeans who settled in the area and trapped the local wolves that they considered a menace. The wolves are long gone — the land now teems with birds, deer and foxes — but it was that practice that gave the name Wolf Trap to the creek running through what is now the only site in the national park system dedicated to the performing arts.
Todd Christopher: That is all thanks to the vision of one woman, Catherine Filene Shouse, who acquired the farmland in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s and turned it into a gathering place and a refuge from the bluster of Washington, DC, just 10 miles away. The only thing Shouse loved more than nature was the performing arts, and in 1966, she donated her land and significant funds to the Interior Department to create this one-of-a-kind national park site. The project broke ground in 1968 and the park opened to the public in 1971.
Todd Christopher: As residents of Northern Virginia and the DC metro area already know, it's a wonderful place to enjoy performances of all kinds. The rustic Theatre-in-the-Woods stages daytime shows for kids and families under a canopy of trees. The Barns of Wolf Trap, two 18th-century structures that were transported from New York and rebuilt onsite, make for a cozy concert venue throughout the fall, winter and spring months.
Todd Christopher: But the main attractions are the summertime shows at the Filene Center, where thousands of concertgoers can sit in a wooden amphitheater built of yellow pine and Douglas fir or spread out on the grassy lawn to enjoy a picnic and a night out under the stars — or at least until last year when the pandemic canceled the 2020 season and silenced Wolf Trap for nearly 15 months. The show must go on, however, and the good news is that performances are finally set to resume this summer. Human performances, anyway. Right now, Wolf Trap is anything but silent as a long-awaited but very different sort of show is already taking place, one that scientists have been expecting for 17 years: the return of Brood X periodical cicadas.
Michael J. Raupp: Count on it. Get ready. It's as reliable as the blooming of the cherry blossoms on the Mall every year.
Todd Christopher: That's Mike Raupp, Professor of Entomology at the University of Maryland and an expert on the curious and often misunderstood insects known as periodical cicadas. I spoke with him a few months ago, and boy, was he right. When the soil reached a temperature of 64 degrees Fahrenheit, the cicadas arrived, en masse and just like clockwork, filling the air with a very different kind of music. But causing a stir is nothing new to these guys. Back in May 2004, the parents of this year's cicadas even made a cameo appearance, when Wolf Trap presented a performance of the long-time public radio program, a Prairie Home Companion. Now, as the only show in town, they've got a starring role, at least for a little while longer.
Todd Christopher: And the reviews have been mostly positive. They're not everyone's cup of tea — greenish black with bulging red eyes and veined orange wings — but periodical cicadas are completely harmless to humans. They don't sting, they don't bite and they're altogether disinterested in us. But they are not graceful fliers and their eyesight isn't all that great. So if one should happen to bump into you, just know that it's an honest mistake — and it could very well happen. Throughout May and June, billions of Brood X periodical cicadas will emerge in parts of 15 states from Tennessee to Indiana to New Jersey and the District of Columbia. The mid-Atlantic in particular will be a hotspot. And if there's an epicenter to this mass emergence, Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts just might be in the middle of it. In the places where the cicadas arrive, there doesn't seem to be a lot of middle ground among the spectators. Some people view them with fascination and wonder, others with fear and dread. It seems that's been the case for quite some time.
Michael J. Raupp: Wonderful history here in North America.
Todd Christopher: That's Mike Raupp again.
Michael J. Raupp: We know that Native Americans feasted on cicadas. We know that they also believed they were harbingers of war and famine.
Todd Christopher: At least the Native Americans recognized a valuable source of protein when they saw it. The European settlers on the other hand, well, they were more than a little freaked out.
Michael J. Raupp: 1751 in the Maryland Gazette, they wrote, "We are informed in some places the locusts have been found in great plenty, just under the surface of the earth, almost at their full growth. May God avert our impending calamities."
Todd Christopher: And by locusts, those early colonists meant cicadas. But their fear and suspicion were of biblical proportions, and Mike Raupp explains how that may have given rise to some confusion that continues to this day.
Michael J. Raupp: The confusion between locusts and cicadas… locusts of course are grasshoppers. But you can imagine, the early colonists who had fled Europe and other parts of the world due to religious persecution, they arrived here in North America, in the colonies, and the next thing they see are these things coming out of the ground, making a lot of noise, getting up in the trees and they say, "Oh my God, here we are back in Egypt with the eighth plague of locusts again." So I think that's how the name locust became attached to periodical cicadas. And I still see these. Somebody had a piece in the Post this past year and they were calling these things locusts and I'm saying, "Oh my God, get this right, guys. These are not grasshoppers. These are big aphids."
Todd Christopher: For the record, both aphids and cicadas are among the tens of thousands of species that belong to the order known as Hemiptera or True Bugs. What they all have in common are mouth parts designed for sucking. There are actually three nearly identical species of the aptly named genus Magicicada that make up Brood X, and like all periodical cicadas, they spend their long time underground getting sustenance by sucking on the roots of trees. But once they're finally above ground, they've got just one thing on their insect minds — you might say they're in the brood for love — and they've got only one shot at it.
Todd Christopher: The racket that goes on for weeks on end is the sound of male cicadas calling in great choruses to the females. They've got specialized organs called tymbals, tucked just under their wings, that they can contract and relax to make a clicking sound. Think of pushing in and then releasing the metal lid of a pickle jar, or a bottle of sweet iced tea. By using their abdominal muscles to contract their tymbals, male cicadas can do something like that up to 50 times a second. And when they gather in the treetops in great numbers to do it all at once, it is loud — really loud. A cicada chorus can reach sound levels of 80, 90, even 100 decibels, louder than a power lawnmower. But you can hardly blame them for putting on a show. Or, as Mike Raupp put it...
Michael J. Raupp: Those teenagers have been underground for 17 years and hey, in May, they're coming up. It's going to be a big boy band up in the treetops as the males try to attract their mate.
Todd Christopher: Even that might be a bit of an understatement. Really, what we're witnessing is pretty much the world's biggest and noisiest public display of affection. But as Shakespeare wrote in a Midsummer Night's Dream, "The course of true love never did run smooth." And these cicadas, who will be all but gone by the summer solstice, have to overcome long odds before meeting and mating. The first challenge is not to be eaten. When periodical cicadas emerge, virtually everything that can eat them, will eat them. Birds, squirrels, snakes, fish, and lots of other wildlife gorge themselves on the suddenly abundant source of food. But there are always more cicadas than can be eaten. It's a strategy known as predator satiation and there's safety in numbers for those who survive to mate — that is, if they don't turn into sex crazed zombies first. I'd better let Mike Raupp explain.
Michael J. Raupp: They're going to be attacked by a fungus that turns them into zombies and it becomes a sexually transmitted disease, an STD.
Todd Christopher: You see, it turns out that even a species as specialized as the periodical Cicada has a parasite even more specialized. In this case, it's a fungus called Massospora cicadina that lies in the soil and infects some cicada nymphs as they emerge. The fungus causes an afflicted cicada's entire abdomen to fall off, leaving behind just a yellow whitish plug of chalky, powdery spores. And it gets worse. There's an amphetamine compound in the fungus that hijacks the hapless cicada's brain, sending it into sexual overdrive, even though it no longer has the organs necessary to mate and reproduce. The cicada thinks it's spreading the love, but it's only spreading the spores. And yet, after such a long wait and despite such hazards, members of Brood X will find each other.
Todd Christopher: But the moment will be fleeting. The periodical cicadas fulfill the biological imperative and then, well, it's over. After mating, the males soon die. The females hang on just long enough to lay their eggs, depositing them in little slits they make in the slender tips of tree branches. Weeks later, the eggs hatch and tiny cicadas, no bigger than grains of rice, rain down from the treetops to the ground below. They burrow underground and wait… and wait… and wait for their chance to repeat the cycle. Mike Raupp has no trouble making sense of it all. For those of us lucky enough to experience it, he thinks it's an amazing learning opportunity.
Michael J. Raupp: It's going to be like having a National Geographic special in your own backyard. You can observe every interesting element of biology: birth, death, predation, courtship, romance. It's just going to be a fascinating opportunity to learn about nature. This has been going on for eons, basically, here in this area. And it's unique. This happens nowhere else on the planet except right here in eastern North America. It's going to be great.
Todd Christopher: It's hard not to agree with him. As bizarre as the whole thing is, it really is kind of great. And for sure, it's more than a little mystifying to see it all unfold. It's all so extreme — 17 long years of darkness before a brief moment in the sun — that it's tempting to look for some deeper meaning here. Even if there is one, maybe it's better not to know. Maybe this is how periodical cicadas are… because this is just how periodical cicadas are. Walt Whitman had this all figured out long ago and he put it much more eloquently. The answer, he said, is that "You are here. That life exists, and identity. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
Todd Christopher: Or, at the very least, be part of the chorus.
Todd Christopher: The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. Episode 1, The Show Must Go On was produced by Todd Christopher. More at thesecretlivesoparks.org. Original theme music by Chad Fisher. You can read more about the connection between national parks and Brood X cicadas in the Spring 2021 issue of National Parks magazine. The award-winning quarterly magazine is an exclusive benefit of membership in the National Parks Conservation Association. For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America's National Parks for present and future generations. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters,
NPCA is the nation's only independent, non-partisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. Learn more and join us at npca.org.