A few weeks ago, Michelle Watson woke up with an absurd, constantly oscillating scream. “What the hell is that noise?” he wondered.
He went outside into his garden and saw hundreds of beady-eyed insects trapped in a large golden shell emerging from the ground and climbing up into the trees. What Watson was seeing was the emergence of thousands of Cave X cicada, part of a billion-strong insect squirrel that has been asleep for 17 years before being born to “scream,” mate — all for about three weeks fulminating.
Watson had spent the past 20 years in Las Vegas, but moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Georgia last year. She had seen posts on social media about cicadas, which emerge once in a generation across a vast swath of the eastern United States, but she thought they were just the usual summer bugs she had. he had heard her whole life. “I think,‘ What’s the big deal? “” She says.
Faced with an attack of bizarre creatures, however, she suddenly realized what the big deal was — and did what any modern human would do: She made it Google. Within minutes, he had downloaded it Cigar Safari, a cicada tracking app.
Apps like iNaturalist, PictureThis, and PlantIn have become popular responses to the pandemic. Many of these apps function as a digital resource, and allow users to submit photos and videos for scientific study. Its success inspired the creator of Cicada Safari, Gene Kritsky, entomologist and professor of biology at Mount St. Joseph University, to create his own service as a track mode for 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 with observations, while postcards were popular in the first half of the 20th century. In the late 1980s, Kritsky used a telephone line that often drowned out so much advice that the tape of his voice machine would get stuck. In 2004, during the last Brood X emergency, he encouraged people to send comments via e-mail with photos attached. He received about 1,000.
The Cicada Safari app allows users to track cicada warnings on a map, as well as take pictures of insects they see and send them to the app. And it’s in sixth place, with nearly 180,000 downloads to release – not bad for a piece of software that most people don’t use beyond the three-week life of insects.