On a bright day in July 1987, Elias Bonaros, then 15 years old, grabbed a bucket and headed from his home in Bayside — a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens — to Ronkonkoma, a town 40 miles to the east on Long Island. Bonaros — now a cardiologist, then a budding naturalist — wanted to see the huge, raucous group of periodical cicadas known as Brood X, which were due to come up in the town.
When he arrived, he found the streets quiet and littered with empty nymph shells. Residents informed him he was a couple of weeks late. “It was heartbreaking,” Bonaros, who still lives in Bayside, recalled recently. He comforted himself with the knowledge that periodical cicadas are predictable: This brood’s descendants, he figured, would keep resurfacing in Long Island for the foreseeable future.
Alas, he may have missed his chance. The cicadas of Brood X are again expected to emerge across the eastern United States in the coming weeks, as they have every 17 years for millennia. (Things have already kicked off in Georgia and Tennessee.) But researchers and other devotees fear that some parts of the country, including all of Long Island, may have lost their local outposts of this famous cohort of insects.
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Humans know and have named periodical cicadas for their clockworklike timing. But our species’ activities have been messing with that regularity by trapping the insects underground, taking away their food and throwing off their schedules.
Development, pesticide use and the presence of invasive species are destroying historic populations of Brood X cicadas, while climate change spurs bugs from different broods to come up years early, experts say. The disruption of these cycles means some places that were expecting cicadas this year will miss out, while others may be surprised by an unscheduled emergence.
Although these changes are probably happening across the cicadas’ range, they’re particularly visible on Long Island, said Chris Simon, a professor at the University of Connecticut who has been studying cicadas for more than 40 years. Long Island was once New York’s last remaining stronghold of Brood X. But the population there has declined in recent decades and was nearly absent during the last mass emergence in 2004. At the same time, some of the area’s Brood XIV cicadas — scheduled to come up four years from now — may make an early appearance this year instead.
In the coming weeks, with the help of community members, researchers are determined “to confirm or deny Brood X’s Long Island demise,” Simon said. A diagnosis there may shed light on what’s in store for these bugs around the country. It also illustrates the toll that human activity can take even on one of nature’s most dependable emissaries — one that can serve as a “canary in a coal mine” for ecological change writ large, she said.