Photographers Should Put This on Their Calendar Right Now: The Brood X Cicada Storm in Eastern U.S.

Even if you aren’t the type of photographer to be interested in a cicada, let me tell you why this summer’s event will be an amazing photo opportunity. It might just not be what you expect.

Brood X is a periodical cicada that numbers in the billions, yes billions. Every 17 years these insects emerge from the ground where the young cicadas (called nymphs) have been feeding on the sap (called xylem) from tree roots. Although often confused with locusts and grasshoppers, cicadas are entirely distinct insects. Brood X has the widest range of any cicada and the sheer size and domination of the cicadas will be surpassed only by their very loud songs. The cicadas are however short-lived. The 2021 brood will only last a few weeks above ground to lay the next round of eggs that will emerge Rip Van Winkle style 17 years later. It is all rather scientific.

Why the Brood X 2021 Emergence is Amazing

Aside from the spectacle of the huge numbers of cicadas, let me give you a huge tip on why you, fellow photographers, should care about this. The cicadas are cool but what takes it to the next level is the sheer number of animals who will also gather for this rare buffet. Birds, fish, foxes, reptiles, you name it — if it has a mouth it will come out of hiding to feast on this delicacy. Personally, aside from photographing the cicadas themselves, I am even more excited to capture images of my local hawks and foxes enjoying the insects. Imagine a bird in flight grasping a cicada in its talons. That's what I am visualizing creating this summer.

The possibilities for documenting this event goes beyond the bug. Even if you aren’t a nature photographer there are ways to capture something unique. Photographing human adults, kids, or pets as they display delight or horror at the cicadas taking over the neighborhood will certainly be fun. I have even heard that cicadas are considered a delicacy and there are recipes online for creating cicada cuisine. If you are an intrepid food photographer showcasing cicada dishes could be an interesting project right there.

If you have any outdoor video shoots planned for early summer, expect the song of a billion cicadas to be your soundtrack. M. cassini, one of the cicada species of Brood X can sing at up to 116 decibels. That is as loud as blasting a car stereo, chainsaw, or leaf blower. If you don’t have any video shoots planned, maybe it’s time to experiment with video to document the spectacle.

Cicadas, Magicicada septendecim. Photo courtesy USDA ARS Information Staff.

Which States Host Brood X

There are verified sightings of Brood X in Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York (very few numbers), Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington D.C. To find the cicadas, first find their food. Because they initially drink from tree roots, look for them near trees and large grasses like sugarcane. When the cicadas emerge they like to find somewhere high up to sing the song of their people. The edges of forests are their favorite habitat. Once you find the cicadas then you’ll also find what makes them food! This is where the critters that I mentioned earlier will be feasting on the cicadas. By sheer numbers alone the cicadas are able to survive their predators, hence the billions of singing and flapping insects taking us all over this summer.

Why the 2021 Cicadas Are Called Brood X

Charles Lester Marlatt was an American entomologist for the Bureau of Entomology at the United States Department of Agriculture. He was passionate about his work and studied cicadas among other insects. In 1898 Marlatt organized the periodical cicadas by assigning Roman numerals to the 30 species, 17 of which have a 17-year lifecycle and 13 have a 13-year life cycle. Modern-day research has updated the brood lists, but his work remains at the forefront of cicada research and classification. Therefore, our 2021 cicadas are Brood X of the 17-year variety. Below is a fascinating piece of his work illustrating the wide reach of Brood X even in the early 1900s.

1907 Map from Marlatt, C.L.The periodical cicada. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Bureau of Entomology.

When To Expect the Cicadas

The cicadas need warm, steady weather for them to continue their life cycle. Often a few warm days followed by a summer shower precedes their emergence. Typically this brood arrives from May to June but it is truly dependent on the weather. When Brood X last emerged in 2004, they were first seen on May 13th. It is possible this year with warmer temperatures for them to show up in late April, but expect May 2021 just in case.

Male Magicicada cassinii, Brood XIII sub-brood, dorsal view. Photo courtesy Peterwchen CC

3 Photo Ideas for Brood X

I recommend trying three different types of photography to truly take advantage of this photo op. Macro photography of the cicadas is a tried and true way to showcase them. They are fairly small insects, all black with red eyes and orange wings. They differ from the regular green cicadas that appear more often. These are fancy cicadas. Three different species make up Brood X which helps explain why it will number in the billions: Magicicada septendecim, Magicicada cassini, and Magicicada septendecula. If you want to get scientific try for all three as macro photos in full body and close up. There are charts online for how to differentiate the species in much more detail than I can cover here if you’d like to research and make a project of it.

The next photograph to try for is a wide-angle environmental portrait. This style of image will showcase the sheer amount of insects and the scenery that they inhabit. The best is a low angle so that some are closer to the camera and therefore large enough to see. The rest of the hoard dotting the background will illustrate the copious number of cicadas. Another view such as a flat lay or bird’s eye view looking straight down on the cicadas would also work well to show off their numbers.

The third photograph that I recommend is a storytelling image. Show the cicadas and their impact. This could be the other wildlife feeding on them, the cicada hoard overtaking a recognizable area, or even an image showing them in unexpected places. With billions of cicadas crawling and flying around, the possibilities will surely be endless.

Lead image courtesy Dan Mozgai/cicadamania.com of an adult Magicicada septendecim from the last Brood X emergence.

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7 Comments

Bob Schafer's picture

Great article Kate, Looking forward to trying some of the techniques you described

kate g's picture

Thank you so much for your positive feedback! I think that Brood X will be a fun treat to get folks outside and try a few new photo techniques this summer. I am looking forward to seeing what everyone creates.

Fabio Di Lisa's picture

Thank you for this very interesting article and not only from a photographic point of view. I wonder whether there is any chance to see those cicadas in Europe, especially in Italy.

kate g's picture

You are very welcome! I am glad that you enjoyed the article. The cicadas of Brood X 2021 are unfortunately only in the Eastern U.S. They are a special type called periodical cicadas and are only found here. That being said, there are regular ones called annual cicadas in many countries so depending where you are you may be able to find some by you as well. They just won't be as numerous or long lived as the periodical cicadas.

Wheeler McGowan's picture

Would like to read your article but the darn COVID ad prevents me from doing so. This site is going total spam, so I am off to find a less commercialized forum. Bye you all’s.

kate g's picture

I'm so sorry to hear that. I tried opening the article in another browser and on my phone and I do not get any ads blocking the article. I hope that you'll decide to check back and give it another chance.

B D's picture

Great info. I like the storytelling idea. Too many photographers forget that aspect of the artform.