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The Year Of The Cicada

adult cicada emerges from the skin of the nymph
Adult cicada emerges from the skin of the nymph. Photo by L. Hurley

The Year Of The Big Cicada

I have to say I have been looking forward to the return of the big cicada emergence in our area in late spring (2021). I know. Lots of big insects flying around making noise, etc. Perhaps not your idea of a good time, but to me, it’s one of those great spectacles of nature that we can see right here without traveling. Sort of like going on a safari to see the great migrations on the Serengeti, only smaller.

The species in question is the periodical cicada, which has a 17-year life cycle, with most of the adults appearing in the same year over several week periods, vs the more familiar “dog-day” cicada, which has a shorter life cycle with adults appearing each year in the middle of summer (the “dog-days”).

The Life Cycle Of A Cicada

Not an exciting life. The adults mate. The female lays her eggs in a small branch of a tree or shrub, the eggs hatch a few weeks later, and the tiny nymphs fall to the ground and burrow into the soil, attaching to a tree root. They feed by sucking sap from the tree root for 17 years, and when the time is right, they emerge from the ground (mostly at night), crawl up onto something to shed their skins, and are transformed into cigar-butt-shaped insects, initially with a white body which eventually turns black. They have red eyes and are a bit smaller than the dog-day cicada. They fly around for a few days, mate if they are lucky, and die. I recommend the following link by Stanton Gill, of the University of Maryland Extension Service for a good description of the life cycle without the hysteria that you might find in other articles.

Creepy Cicadas Or Not?

Okay, if you find insects creepy, this will not be the best time for you to be outdoors, although once they hatch and start flying, they spend most of their time up around the treetops. They buzz like the dog-day cicadas but at a much higher pitch: to me, it’s more like a steady hum, but I don’t have the upper register hearing that a younger person has. It doesn’t bother me at all. They don’t bite, they don’t sting, they rarely feed as adults, so they don’t chew on your roses. You will see many on the ground or on low vegetation after they emerge, and of course when they are dying at the end of their life cycle. I am told that dogs love to eat them even more than they like to eat socks, and they are a bonanza to birds and other wildlife as well.

A Few Ideas On Some Practical Preventive From Cicada Damage

Recall that the eggs are laid on tree and shrub branches. The female has what is called an ovipositor, which she uses to make slits in the branch, into which the eggs are inserted. This weakens and may kill the branch, which will eventually fall to the ground. A few weeks after the egg-laying you will notice a lot of brown tips on branches on your trees, as the leaves flag (wilt) and then turn brown. On mature trees this is not a big deal: it’s just like pruning. On newly planted trees and shrubs and small trees like Japanese maples and young fruit trees, the damage is more severe.

Do not apply insecticides: it’s ineffective and it’s always good to minimize pesticide use. The only practical preventive, and then only for smaller plants, is to wrap the plant in bird netting for a couple of weeks. The holes need to be small enough that the insects can’t get through, but you still need to have light and air pass through to the plant. See your local garden center for the best product for your needs. There are several manufacturers. I just purchased a netting with ¼ inch holes, to protect some grass seed from the starlings. It was made by DeWitt, and on the expensive side, but it was easy to work with and can be easily folded up to reuse. I’ve never done anything to protect any of my shrubs, although I have a nice six-foot Japanese maple that is near my front door that I may wrap this year.|

Where You See The Most Cicadas

Thinking again of the trees and shrubs and the life cycle. Let’s say you live in a new housing development. Are the trees in your neighborhood are new because it was a farm field 17 years ago, then you aren’t going to have many cicadas. Do you live in a densely urban setting with just a few street trees, you aren’t going to have many cicadas. If you are in an older neighborhood, live adjacent to a park, or live in a neighborhood where the existing trees were preserved, then you will likely have a bunch.

Our neighborhood has homes that were built in the 1950s with many existing trees preserved, so we always have a lot of cicadas. So many that at peak hatch, we can literally hear them walking through the grass and leaves as they come out of the ground and crawl to find something to attach to so they can shed their skins. I mean, how cool is that!!

Last Advice From Larry Hurley On Cicadas

So, my advice is, just marvel at nature and feel lucky to be here, it won’t come around again for another 17 years. One last piece of advice: when outdoors, wear a broad-brimmed hat to avoid unfortunate accidents like the time one fell into my wife’s blouse, which is pretty funny if it’s happening to someone else.

Cicada shed skins and newly emerged adults on a Hydrangea 'Annabelle'
Cicada shed skins and newly emerged adults on a Hydrangea 'Annabelle'
dead cicadas at end of season
dead cicadas at end of season
Cicada adults on hostas, just hangin' out
Cicada adults on hostas, just hangin' out
closeup of an adult Cicada emerging on a magnolia leaf
Closeup of an adult Cicada emerging on a magnolia leaf 17 year cicada; 2004; Hurley Garden, Bethesda
Cicada adults emerging from nymphs that have crawled up onto a handy Christmas Fern
Cicada adults emerging from nymphs that have crawled up onto a handy Christmas Fern

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Appreciate Larry’s story on the cicadas. Pat time they were out, I was driving near Ft Meade and the noise sounded like I was on a BWI runway

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