In 2004, Frank Meek was standing in line at an airport in Ohio. Meek was a technical and training director for pest control company Orkin at the time, and he'd just completed a pest-related project at a poultry farm. He was about to fly home to Atlanta when a Transportation Security Administration agent pulled him aside. Meek had three cicadas stuck to his back.
"There's the bug guy being called out inside the airport for carrying live insects ... he had no idea about," says Meek, now technical services manager for Orkin. He was remembering the last time the group of cicadas known as Brood X emerged from their 17-year, underground hideouts and were so ubiquitous a short walk into the airport resulted in three cicada hitchhikers on his back. Periodical cicadas spend the majority of their lives underground and emerge every 13 or 17 years, depending on the brood, for a mating frenzy that's hard to ignore.
As Brood X gets begins to emerge in 15 eastern US states and Washington, DC, the billions of cicadas seeking mates, getting busy and laying eggs can cause something of a stunning visual and auditory ruckus for a few weeks. For someone like Meek, a board-certified entomologist and bug fan, it's all pretty rad. Having worked in the pest control industry since the '80s, though, he's learned that when a brood of periodical cicadas hits, not everyone is as thrilled, and sometimes folks turn to their local pest control professionals to do something about it.
"There is a predisposition for people to react to insects with fear or disgust," says Jim Fredericks, chief entomologist for the National Pest Management Association, a trade association for the pest management industry. That reaction's not always unfounded -- termites can damage structures and cockroaches have been linked with asthma. Certain pests live up to the name.
During the Brood X emergence 17 years ago, Fredericks was working at a pest control company in Baltimore and vividly remembers the calls from concerned clients. The thing is, cicadas don't bite, sting or cause damage, aside from possibly harming some young trees when the females lay copious amounts of eggs in the branches. So when people call for help, Fredericks says, those in pest control are largely in the position of educating clients about why the pest pros aren't going to show up and spray down their yard with pesticide.
To an extent, education is always a key part of pest control. For instance, Fredericks says part of getting a handle on an ant invasion is talking to the client about preventative measures, like not leaving food out.
Meek remembers learning the lesson about education himself. He started in the business in 1986, a year before another Brood X appearance. He was in sales, and his job was to go into residential areas and get people to use pest control services.
"I remember thinking ... this news says we're going to have this swarm of insects ... so I'm gonna make a lot of money right now," he says. "It wasn't the case. I was very quickly educated by the company that no, we can't go out and sell business for that."
So, what does pest control say?
The first big point is that cicadas won't harm you, says Angela Tucker, a board-certified entomologist and technical manager for Terminix, another pest control company. Tucker grew up in Kansas, where annual cicadas are more common than periodical cicadas. Annual cicadas are different from periodical cicadas, to be sure, but they share common attributes, like their loud chirping and buzzing and their the general pattern of emerging, mating, laying eggs and dying while the offspring head down below.
Tucker says pest pros let customers "know about the basic biology, and, 'Hey, we appreciate that you have concerns, but they're not going to be getting into your home or business.'"
Meek will explain everything, from the holes people are likely to see in the ground where the bugs emerged to the purpose of the chirping and why cast off exoskeletons litter the ground everywhere.
"We really want people to understand and know that pesticides are not the answer, which sounds really funny coming from a pest control company," Meek says. "Pesticides are not the thing to use on this insect. They don't work for it, and it's a waste of product, and it's a danger to the environment just to spray down because you're afraid of the cicadas."
Cicadas play a role in the environment, too. They'll provide a "cicada smorgasbord" for birds and other animals, and all those dead cicadas will decompose and put nitrogen back in the soil -- which has been aerated as they tunnel out en masse.
And though sometimes people are disappointed that pest control doesn't have a silver-bullet solution to keep the bugs away, Meek says, learning about them goes a long way toward alleviating any fears or concerns.
Meek, Tucker and Fredericks all shared another bit of advice as pest control professionals and entomologists: Enjoy the rare natural spectacle.
Fredericks likes to think about everything that's happened in the last 17 years: Kids graduating high school now were infants the last time Brood X surfaced. iPhones hadn't appeared yet. The last episode of Friends had just aired on NBC.
During an emergence in northern Virginia several years back, he took his daughter, who was 6 at the time, to see and listen to the cicadas.
Tucker underlined that it's an impactful experience, particularly because it doesn't happen that often.
"The neatest thing for me," Fredericks says, "is sometimes when you're out in people's homes, helping them with different pest issues, and little kids find the cast-off skin of the nymphs that stuck to the tree, and they want to talk about that. And it's just a great chance to teach and to educate and to build people's interest in insects and the fact that they're not all bad, and that they are actually pretty cool."