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VERIFY: Why does my neighbor have cicadas and I have none?

Cicadas have started to swarm the DC area. But some viewers have questioned why their backyards are not being hit. The Verify team found answers.

WASHINGTON — In the D.C. region, cicadas are everywhere. They can be heard from the treetops and the sidewalks are littered with their skins. Some people have even started eating these little creatures. 

A viewer asked the Verify team why their backyard was empty, while nearby neighbors had plenty of these bugs. We spoke with the experts to find out. 

THE QUESTION

Why do cicadas go to certain homes and backyards, but not others?

THE ANSWER

Cicadas are extremely "patchy," according to our experts, meaning that they can be in one location, but not elsewhere down the road. A major factor is land use. If a property had been deforested in the last 17 years, it's likely that the cicadas will not emerge in that area. 

SOURCES

  • Michael J. Raupp, Emeritus Professor of Entomology at University of Maryland, Fellow of the Entomological Society of America
  • Zoe Getman-Pickering, Postdoctoral Scientist at The George Washington University

WHAT WE FOUND

While cicada-mania grips much of the D.C. region, some neighbors are wondering why they're missing out on the fun. A Leesburg, Virginia viewer sent the Verify team the following email: 

Hey WUSA, 

Yes, sorry another cicada question. I live in Leesburg in a community that was built in 2007-2008. No cicadas here. Is that caused by the ground disturbance/build since this last cicada infestation? 

To find out, the Verify team took the question to the experts. Michael Raupp, an emeritus professor of Entomology at the University of Maryland, said the biggest factor is land use in the last 17 years. If someone lives on a new development, erected in the time since 2004, they may not see cicadas due to deforestation. Cicadas feed on the roots of trees and need them to survive. 

"Just like Joni Mitchell said, 'you paved paradise and put up a parking lot,'" Raupp joked. No more cicadas."

This also explains why those in urban environments are less likely to see cicadas in large numbers. Even if some of the 2004 generation of cicadas gathered in city trees, many of their baby nymphs would be unable to get underground due to all the pavement.

"When they fall from the branches above, they simply can't get down into the soil," Raupp said. "There's no soil to get to. So that's why in areas that are heavily built up with impervious surface, [it's] very unlikely you're going to have cicadas. They need to have soil, they need to have roots, they need to have trees." 

Raupp said that he's seen many cicadas in oak trees, maple trees and elm trees. These cicadas are less likely to be in trees with dense needle foliage and branches. Even if you have a tree liked by cicadas, Raupp said it's possible you won't see them.  

"They're patchy," he said. "They may have emerged, but they may have gone down the street 100 yards. That’s where they’re laying eggs. So you may have had them in ‘04, but they simply laid eggs somewhere else. Those eggs then drop underneath the tree, so you’re not going to have any cicadas in your landscape. And it can be as simple as 100 yards down the road.”

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