As Brood X Numbers Grow, Cicadas Interfere With Cars, Planes and Radar

Lawnmower-like singing isn’t the only way that these bugs have made themselves known

Many periodical cicadas sit on green leaves. One has its wings raised.
Billions of cicadas have emerged across 14 states and Washington, D.C. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After 17 years underground, Brood X cicadas have emerged in 15 states. In some areas, their 100-decibel songs and nymph shells are nearly unavoidable.

Billions of the beady-eyed bugs have found a few other surprising ways to make themselves known. The insects’ disruptions have included delaying a White House press corps airplane, as Seth Borenstein reports for the Associated Press. One fast-flyinh bug caused a car crash when it flew into a driver’s open window, as Morgan Smith reports for People.

Brood X’s emergence is particularly dense around Washington, D.C. For a few days, weather radars in the region were cluttered with signs of a biological swarm. The reading was probably the result of insect interference, reports the Washington Post. Heat and humidity in the region could make the radar extra sensitive to the cicadas’ presence.

"It's like the perfect cicada storm," says NBC meteorologist Kathryn Prociv to NBC News’ Daniella Silva and Denise Chow.

Periodical cicadas live mainly in the eastern United States. Brood X is one of fifteen broods that emerge in different regions and on different schedules. Up to 1.5 million insects can emerge per acre, overwhelming predators with sheer numbers. Even after birds, squirrels, frogs and raccoons have eaten a buffet’s worth of bugs, enough cicadas survive to mate and produce the next generation.

Cicadas confounded one aircraft this week by crowding into its engines and causing mechanical issues, per Jaclyn Diaz at NPR. That plane happened to also be carrying the White House press corps, and their flight was delayed by seven hours because of the insects.

“The loud machine-made noise fools cicadas who interpret the noise as a cicada chorus that they want to join and they fly towards it,” says University of Maryland entomologist Paula Shrewsbury to the Associated Press. “I have noted when airplanes fly over my house, the cicadas increase their chorusing sound level, potentially competing with the aircraft noise.”

A few cicadas were spotted on Air Force Two last weekend, hitching a ride on a Secret Service agent and a photographer, per the AP. Elsewhere in Washington, a bug with less luxurious taste in transportation was spotted riding on the Metro. In Maryland, a cicada made its mark by lurking over a car’s rearview camera, per CBS Baltimore.

Cicadas are not able to sting or bite, so they do not pose a threat to humans. But they are large insects and can take unpredictable flight paths, which can surprise people.

"Many people are just unduly afraid of insects, so if one flies in the window, they may panic and not pay attention to driving," says Virginia Tech entomologist Doug Pfeiffer to NBC News. "There's an emotional overreaction, in addition to some real problems that could crop up when there are insects in very high numbers.”

In Cincinnati, a cicada flew into a car and hit the driver in the face, causing the driver to swerve and hit a pole, per People. The driver sustained mild injuries from the crash, and the right side of the car’s hood was nearly ripped off.

The majority of cicadas aren’t at ground level, though—they’re buzzing around in the canopy looking for mates. That’s why meteorologists suspect that weather radar that senses close to the ground was able to pick up cicada activity, reports the Washington Post. The fuzziness in the radar images stretched up to 6,000 feet high, which is beyond cicada territory.

But by using a high-resolution radar that could detect just 300 feet above the ground, the Post’s meteorologists found that the mysterious, fuzzy signal appeared dense at the treetops and diffused at higher elevations.

“Our hunch is that multiple types of insects are contributing to the noisy radar signals,” reports Jeff Halverson, Kevin Ambrose and Matthew Cappucci for the Washington Post. “Cicadas at low levels and mayflies or termites higher aloft.”

By the end of June, the cicada mayhem will come to an end: after females lay hundreds of eggs each in tree branches, adult cicadas will die off. And six to ten weeks later, the eggs will hatch and tiny nymphs will fall to the ground, burrow into the soil and begin their own 17-year wait.