A few weeks ago, Michelle Watson woke up to a deafening, steadily oscillating screech. “What the heck is that noise?” she wondered.
She went outside to her yard and saw hundreds of beady-eyed insects enrobed in a thick shell of gold emerging out of the ground and crawling up the trees. What Watson was seeing was the emergence of thousands of Brood X cicadas, part of a billions-strong insect swarm that has lain dormant for 17 years before arising to “scream,” mate— all over about three thunderous weeks.
Watson had spent the past 20 years in Las Vegas, but moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Georgia last year. She’d seen social media posts about the cicadas, which emerge once in a generation across a huge swath of the eastern United States, but figured they were just the usual summer bugs that she’d heard her entire life. “I thought, ‘What’s the big deal?’” she says.
Faced with an onslaught of bizarre creatures, though, she suddenly understood what the big deal was—and did what any modern human would do: She Googled it. Within minutes, she had downloaded Cicada Safari, a cicada-tracking app.
Apps like iNaturalist, PictureThis, and PlantIn have become popular respites from the pandemic. Many of these apps act as a digital resource, and allow users to submit photos and video for scientific study. Their success inspired Cicada Safari’s creator Gene Kritsky, an entomologist and biology professor at Mount St. Joseph University, to create his own service as a way of tracking Brood X.
Crowdsourcing has long been a way of gathering information for an event that only happens once in a generation, says Kritsky. Researchers in 1858 wrote to newspaper editors urging them to get readers to write in with observations, while postcards were popular in the first half of the 20th century. By the late 1980s, Kritsky was using a telephone hotline that would often get so drowned in tips that the tape on his voicemail machine would get jammed. In 2004, during the last emergence of Brood X, he urged people to send in observations via email with photos attached. He received about 1,000.
Cicada Safari app allows users to track sightings of cicadas on a map, as well as take photos of insects they spot and submit them to the app. And it is riding a wave, with nearly 180,000 downloads as of publication — not bad for a piece of software that most people won’t use beyond the three-week lifespan of the insects.
The app has blown away Kritsky’s goal of 5,000 observations, he says. As of June 2, “we have over 400,000 cicada photos submitted,” he says. “We’re getting 16,000 photos a day, and at this rate, we are very likely to get half a million observations.”
A team of 20 volunteers, including his wife, sift through each photo by hand, checking to make sure the images are clearly visible ones of a Brood X cicada; if the images aren’t clear, they’re deleted. Kritsky hopes that by the time the next major cicada explosion emerges in 2024—a brood in northern Illinois that emerges on a 13-year cycle—he’ll have figured out a way to use artificial intelligence to do the painstaking work.
“I’m just in awe”
Although Cicada Safari is the only cicada tracker on the US App Store, it is capitalizing on some key trends. Nature-based services tap people’s enjoyment of hikes and outdoor parks as the safest way to interact with others during the pandemic, whether they are vaccinated or not. Citizen science apps, meanwhile, offer a family friendly activity that allows anyone to record and submit natural observations. Michelle Watson feels her submissions to the app are “my small way of contributing to that research.” When you’re stuck at home, an app that makes you feel productive and helpful rather than reminding you of an emptying bank account can be powerful.
That’s reflected in the breadth of people engaging in citizen science. Kritsky says Cicada Safari does not collect data on who is using its service, but has seen photos from users of different ethnicities, often with children, and older people in the background. “We wanted the interface to be really simple,” Kritsky says.
Citizen science apps have succeeded in opening up the conversation and work of research to many people with no science background. Watson, a former paralegal, has now joined a Facebook group dedicated to tracking cicadas, and is also on a group chat with fellow enthusiasts. The app’s leaderboard—a ranking of the top 500 submittors of usable cicada images—shows that she’s currently holding the No. 2 spot in the country, with 3,785 photos at the time of publishing (the leader is at nearly 7,000.)
But perhaps what unites these communities most is a feeling that has become foreign to many during the pandemic: awe. Janet Sun, a 23-year-old graduate student in Maryland, remembers the last emergence of Brood X, and fondly recalls picking up their shedded exoskeletons. “It was a magical memory for me,” Sun said in a Twitter DM. “I had the impression they were three inches long because I was so much smaller last time.”
Watson agrees. “I have never seen anything like this,” she says. “They curl out of the ground, climb up the tree, molt, and inflate their wings in a matter of a few hours. You see their life cycle right before your eyes. I’m just in awe.”