The United States is the only place in the world where cicadas go underground for 13 or 17 years.
Even Biden was not spared. The president brushed a cicada from the back of his neck as he chatted with his Air Force greeter after arriving at Joint Base Andrews for Wednesday’s flight.
“Watch out for the cicadas,” Biden then told reporters. “I just got one. It just got me.”
The Washington, DC area is among the many parts of the country that have been swarmed by Brood X cicadas, a large emergence of the loud insects that take to dive-bombing onto moving vehicles and unsuspecting passersby. There are trillions of them in the Washington, Maryland and Virginia region, said University of Maryland entomologist Paula Shrewsbury. Their current numbers have not been seen in 17 years.
The bugs also tried to stow away on Air Force Two on Sunday when Vice President Kamala Harris flew to Guatemala. The cicadas were caught hiding in folds of the shirts of a Secret Service agent and a photographer, and escorted off the plane before takeoff.
The cicadas — which sing to attract mates with science-fiction-sounding hums — seem to be attracted to other noises, entomologists said. That could be what happened with the plane.
“The loud machine-made noise fools cicadas who interpret the noise as a cicada chorus that they want to join and they fly towards it,” Shrewsbury said. “I have noted when airplanes fly over my house, the cicadas increase their chorusing sound level, potentially competing with the aircraft noise.”
It was unclear how cicadas disrupted the mechanics of the press plane. Weather and crew rest issues also contributed to the flight delay late Tuesday. Ultimately, the plane was swapped for another one, and the flight took off shortly after 04:00 EDT (08:00 GMT) on Wednesday.
“Well, why wouldn’t the cicadas want to go to the UK with the president of the United States?” asked University of Maryland entomologist Mike Raupp. Periodic cicadas are mostly in the United States with two tiny exceptions in Asia. They are not in Europe. At least not yet.
This is not the first time the cicadas have caused havoc for a presidential event or been political fodder.
In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt, known for a booming voice, was nearly drowned out in an address at Arlington National Cemetery.
Eighty-five years later — five cicada cycles — President Ronald Reagan in a radio address talked about how Washington was overrun and compared the harmless flying insects to big spenders.
“I think most everyone would agree, things will be much more pleasant when the cicadas go back underground,” Reagan said.
In a 2004 attack advertisement, Republicans attacked Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, now Biden’s special climate adviser, by comparing him to noisy cicadas that disappear.
The three previous White House residents — George W Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — had run-ins with pesky house flies, said University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum. And then there is the fly that perched on Vice President Mike Pence’s head during a live vice-presidential debate last year, she said.