As Joe Biden prepared to board Air Force One for his first foreign trip as US president last week, he offered one piece of advice.
“Watch out for the cicadas,” he told reporters on the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews, swatting his neck where a large insect had landed. “I just got one, it just got me.”
The journalists did not need reminding. Hours earlier, a plane chartered to carry the White House press corps across the Atlantic had been grounded by a swarm of the red-eyed bugs clogging the aircraft’s engines. The day before, the National Weather Service reported the weather radar around the nation’s capital had been “fuzzier” than usual. The likely culprit? Cicadas.
Washingtonians have for weeks endured the once every-17-years infestation of insects with equal parts fascination and disgust. When local news outlets first began warning billions of cicadas would emerge from the ground, I dismissed their looming arrival as a minor inconvenience, much like the scorching temperatures and humidity that make Washington feel especially swampy this time of year.
A few weeks later, I can confirm what many DC veterans had said all along: cicadas are, in a word, gross.
Not everyone agrees. Colleagues report their children are delighted by them. Local news sites are full of advice columns for dog owners whose canines will not stop ingesting them. A quick search for “cicada recipes” shows some humans apparently want to eat them, too. But I am with the president: cicadas are best avoided.
Besides being large, they are loud — noise levels have been recorded at 90 decibels in some areas, akin to a lawnmower — and messy, spraying urine on those who happen to walk underneath the trees where they are perched.
Thankfully, in addition to being technically harmless to humans and animals, the cicadas are only temporary. The Brood X cicadas appear in North America in warm weather once every 17 years, emerging from the ground for a suicidal mating frenzy. The males die after mating; the females die after laying their eggs in trees; the eggs hatch within weeks and the new insects fall swiftly to the ground, burrowing into the earth for a decade and a half, before the whole process starts again.
Scientists say the deluge should end by July 4. And while I will not miss the bugs, their looming departure has me contemplating what Washington might look like when they return.
Seventeen summers ago, George W Bush was in the White House, seeking re-election against Democratic challenger John Kerry, while US troops were in the early stages of the war in Iraq. A relatively unknown state senator from Illinois gave the keynote address at Kerry’s nominating convention.
Less than a decade later that senator, Barack Obama, was president and he tapped Kerry to be his secretary of state. A few years after that in 2016, American voters rejected Obama’s legacy and elected a property developer turned reality TV star president.
Predicting the future is a fool’s game, and I will not wager who controls the White House or Congress after 2024, let alone during the next cicada swarm in 2038. But until recently, I would have said it was a sure bet that at the very least future US elections would be free and fair. Now I am less confident.
It is easy to forget in a year marked by a global pandemic, military-enforced curfews and now an infestation of locust-like insects, that just six months ago, a mob of Donald Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol to interrupt the certification of Biden’s Electoral College victory. Hours later, several people were dead — and 147 elected Republicans still voted to overturn the results of November’s election.
When Biden was sworn in peacefully two weeks later, many in Washington breathed a sigh of relief. But in the months since, there has been little sign of bipartisan reckoning on Capitol Hill, with Republican lawmakers recently rejecting Democrat-led efforts to establish a bipartisan commission to probe the January 6 riots. That begs the question: what happens the next time the ballots are counted, let alone what American democracy looks like when the cicadas are back?