Cicada Swarm and Copperheads Snack: It’s a Thing in Virginia, DC

WASHINGTON, DC — Virginians and DC residents may have differing views about the billions of Brood X17-year-old crickets set to appear next month — some see the deafening noise and insects as pests, even if experts say they’re an edible snack.

But copperheads will like them because the insects will provide a quick meal.

You read that right: copperheads, the venomous snakes found in many of the same states, including Virginia and the District of Columbia, where billions of crickets will appear later this spring. So if you’re planning a trip to listen to the cacophony set up by these creatures, be careful not to let copperheads slide nearby.

Billions of the 17-year-old periodic cicadas — Brood X, also known this year as the Great Eastern Brood — are expected to appear in May in 15 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, lasting a few weeks or more.

The synchronized emergence of periodic cicadas, which have the longest life cycles of any known insect, still baffles scientists. But an evolutionary hypothesis is that the forced developmental delay was an adaptation to climate cooling during the ice ages.

dr. Michael Raupp, known for his Bug Guy blog and professor emeritus of entomology at the University of Maryland, said parts of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia will witness the spectacle.

Raupp also said that crickets are good protein snacks for humans; his students have come up with recipes using the critters.

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Copperheads, a close relative of the cottonmouth or water moccasin, are found throughout most of Virginia. But according to the Virginia Herpetological Society, copperheads appear to be more abundant in the mountains than in the Piedmont or coastal plain.

In addition to Virginia, the 17-year-old cicadas will appear in Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Researchers have said crickets will abound in our state in Alexandria, Annandale, Arlington, Ashburn, Centerville, Chantilly, Del Ray, Fairfax, Falls Church, Franconia, Herndon, Lorton, Manassas, Oakton, Reston, Springfield, Sterling and Vienna .


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Shy and withdrawn copperheads emerge from their figurative shells when the crickets emerge. The snakes exploit the insect emergence as a smorgasbord that requires no more effort than just showing up.

Cicadas are a “pretty easy snack” for the copperheads, Stephen Richter, a biology professor at Eastern Kentucky University, told Tulsa World in 2019.

He and his students were working with the US Forest Service in Daniel Boone National Forest at the time, looking at what the federal agency saw as a potential conflict and threat to campers: the convergence of copperheads and emerging crickets.

Amateur photographer Charlton McDaniel of Fort Smith, Arkansas, captured a photo of a copperhead devouring a cicada.

“He jumped pretty good at first,” he told Tulsa World, explaining that he tried to chase the snake away with a stick, but he persevered and went all the way to take the prize.

“I had no idea about that copperhead and cricket thing until this happened,” he said.

With their retractable hypodermic canines, these pit vipers are more than capable of delivering a debilitating, venomous attack on most prey.

“Why would such a well-armed predator bother to feed on crickets?” asked writer Andy Gluesenkamp in a 2016 issue of Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine. “We eat fast food for the same reason: it’s cheap and convenient. Cicadas can be found in high densities and they offer no defense for their fat and protein-filled bodies, other than a crunchy exoskeleton.”

Copperheads, also known as penny snakes, know exactly when to strike. They ambush the newly emerged crickets before their exoskeletons have had time to harden, Gluesenkamp explained.

Copperheads are not particularly aggressive, although they do strike defensively. Experts say that most copperhead bites occur as a result of chance encounters.

Copperhead bites are rarely fatal. Their venom is not the most potent venomous snake and is hemolytic, meaning it breaks down blood cells, according to a National Geographic species profile.

When they emerge, the male crickets all tune in to a species-wide mating call that can reach up to 100 decibels. Think of a straight-pipe Harley-Davidson motorcycle running constantly outside your window.

Newly grown crickets are in a hurry to mate because they don’t live long after that — three, maybe four weeks. The females cannot produce the deafening sounds. They quietly wait to do their job in preserving the species, laying as many eggs as possible, up to 600 in their short life.

After mating, the females split the bark of living tree trunks, branches and twigs, burrow and lay between 24 and 48 eggs at a time.

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