This is the way the cicada season in New York City ends – not with a buzz, or even a whisper. After enthusiastic columns heralding a cicadapocalypse across the East Coast, the only place in the five boroughs that seems to have been blessed (or cursed) with bugs is Staten Island.
Brood II’s emergence after 17 years of slumber was supposed to be an event. Some entomologists predicted that a trillion or more insects would arise from the earth. Buzzing would echo from Brooklyn the Bronx, bug-phobic New Yorkers would run wild in the streets, cats and dogs would start living together, et cetera…
But aside from some pockets of Staten Island, cicadas have failed to make much of an appearance in the Big Apple. Why?
"The decline in cicadas in New York is likely the result of land use," College of Mount St. Joseph cicada expert Gene Kritsky told New York magazine’s Daily Intelligencer. "If trees were removed from areas where cicadas had emerged in the past and they are not within a mile of other cicadas, then the population would not replenish itself. This has resulted in a very sporadic distribution of the cicadas in more urban areas."
Cicadas rely on the sap from tree roots for most of their lives, so without green space, they aren’t going to last long enough to see the sun. There could be other factors that depress cicada numbers, too: bad weather that affects the supply of tree sap, or concentrations of predatory birds.
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A cicada’s singular survival strategy is force of numbers, so the smaller a population of cicadas gets, the more vulnerable it is to extinction. Brood XI, last seen on a dairy farm in 1954, is assumed to be mostly extinct; Brood VII, which consists of just a single species (most broods are a mingling of three kinds of cicada) is limited to just the Onondaga Nation in upstate New York.
Public radio station WNYC, in partnership with the shop Radiolab, is still keeping tabs on the current cicada emergence. Though Brood II won’t be doing any sightseeing in New York City, they’re singing, flying, mating and dying all throughout New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, and other places not dominated by the concrete jungle.
Cicada researchers are using observations from citizen scientists, along with automated devices equipped with GPS, to make more accurate records of Brood II’s emergence than any cicada invasion before. University of Connecticut researcher Chris Simon told LiveScience that she used to have to communicate with on-location cicada counters by snail mail and payphone. Now she can use a device that automatically registers the location of a sighting, and combine that with observations from citizens hundreds of miles away.
"It's really revolutionized the way we do fieldwork," Simon said.