Cicadas are true bugs that emerge only once every few years during the spring. But this year, in 2021, a group known as the Great Eastern Brood (Brood-X) will appear after 17 years of living underground. There will be billions of them, and they will all die after about two weeks of life as adults.
Why is this happening?
Newly formed adult cicadas mate during the late spring and early summer months. As part of the reproductive process, several events take place
- Males attract the females with a song produced by a unique organ under the abdomen called a tymbal.
- After mating, the female cuts slits in live tree branches to lay her eggs.
- The eggs hatch after 6–10 weeks.
- The newly hatched nymphs fall to the ground and begin burrowing to find food.
- The young cicada goes through five developmental stages for the next 17 years until it's time to reproduce again.
Annual vs. periodical cicadas
The annual cicada emerges every summer, whereas the periodical cicada emerges depending on the brood. In this case, Brood-X will see millions of newly formed adults appear after 17 long years. So, the 2021 event is what scientists have been anticipating for a long time.
Where is this taking place?
The exciting thing about periodical cicadas is that they are found only in the Northeastern United States. Here is a list of the states affected by the 2021 emergence:
- North Carolina
- New jersey
- New York
- West Virginia
- Washington, DC
Some areas will be more concentrated than others. The epicenter is a 100-mile stretch between Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC. And the midwest region will have its focal point in Indianapolis, while Kentucky will be the central location for the south.
Can cicadas harm humans or animals?
According to Ryan Smith, an entomologist from Ant & Garden Pest Control, cicadas pose no threat to humans or animals. They don't bite or transmit diseases. Nor will they pose any health risk to children or pets.
Still, there may be some fear created to small children witnessing large swarms of insects. So, it's best to keep them inside during these events. And if a dog catches a few in their mouth, the worst that will happen is they'll vomit them up.
Can cicadas get into your home?
Due to the sheer numbers during mating season, a few cicadas could make their way into your home. The good news is, they don't breed inside, says Nicholas Martin, a chief entomologist from Pest Control Hacks. So, you won't have to worry about hiring an exterminator to get rid of them.
Do we need to dispose of dead cicadas?
Mr. Martin also states that there are no health risks from dead cicadas. You can dispose of them any way you want. Or, you can leave them to decompose naturally. And in some instances, they make excellent fertilizer for your garden.
Do cicadas destroy plants and vegetation?
Most entomologists like Godfrey Nalyanya from Ehrlich Pest Control agree that cicadas pose minimal risk to garden plants and trees. The exception may be young tree saplings.
However, this is no ordinary event, states Michael Skvarla from Penn State's Arthropod research lab. In a recent extension service article, he writes, "While annual cicada oviposition does not usually damage trees, periodical cicadas emerge in such high numbers that they can collectively cause heavy damage that results in twig and stem dieback."
He says that the majority of larger trees can withstand such an onslaught of insect damage. But they may be a bit unappealing to the eye until they make a full recovery. Still, the established trees in your neighborhood will once again have all their branches intact.
Not so with young trees and saplings, Skvarla says. The damage from this 2021 event could cause the death of small plants and trees.
He also states that this is not the time for pruning or transplanting. Instead, cover adolescent trees and other small vegetation with insect netting to help protect them during this event.
Should we kill cicadas?
Phillip Nixon, an entomologist from the University of Illinois, says it's possible to kill large numbers of cicadas using broadband insecticide sprays. But his research indicates that there is little evidence to suggest that it makes any difference. He also states that the best way to protect saplings from cicadas is to avoid planting trees for one year. However, it should be noted that this only applies to areas where periodical cicadas typically emerge.
What are zombie cicadas?
The massospora fungus zombifies periodical cicadas. It latches onto the bug and slowly eats away at the rear half of its body. What's left is a mass of fungal spores. The infested cicada then flies around, infecting other cicadas.
There are chemical compounds found in the fungus that are similar to those found in hallucinogenic mushrooms. They work together to control the cicada. One of the ways it does this is by keeping the bug awake. By having the cicada active longer, more of the spores can be introduced to other cicadas, infecting them also.
The fungus also controls the male cicada by forcing it to flutter its wings like a female. This "song" is effective for attracting other males. And once these other male cicadas are lured in, they are also infected by the fungal spores. And then the cycle of infection continues.
The best defense against this "zombie fungus" is in the cicada's large numbers. The infection can't possibly reach every bug. So, for the periodical cicada, survival is assured.
Can cicadas cause hearing loss?
The song of the male cicada is produced by a pair of tymbals located in the front of the abdomen. Its purpose is to call out to females, attracting them during the mating season. Each species has its own distinct sound patterns.
They also have built-in amplifiers to help the song carry further. These are hollow voids within the abdominal area. These empty chambers help the sound reverberate, much like in a symphony concert hall.
The loud buzzing noise they make can be deafening. With several thousand male cicadas together in one location, they can reach over 90 decibels. But in short bursts, this should not be a problem.
However, researchers at Vanderbilt University recently conducted a study concluding that cicadas can cause hearing loss over longer periods. So, they recommend wearing hearing protection while being around cicada swarms for longer than a few minutes.
Can we make cicadas be quiet?
The emergence of large cicada broods only lasts a few weeks. So, it's just a matter of waiting them out. And short of total eradication– which is impossible– there's no way to quiet them.
How do you get rid of Cicadas from your yard?
Having swarms of cicadas all over your trees is one thing, but seeing them climb up the walls of your house can leave you frustrated. That's why it's essential to know how to at least slow their numbers. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
1. Call the birds. Several bird species feast on cicadas. Here are some examples of the more common ones:
If you're already a bird-watcher and enjoy setting out food for your avian friends, you're one step ahead. You can pull the bird feeders as soon as you get cicadas. Or you can simply hope that your birds feast on this new menu choice.
2. Hose them down. You'll need a high-pressure water source for this strategy to work. But be careful with stucco walls or freshly painted surfaces. And unfortunately, this will have to be an everyday routine until the cicadas leave or die out.
3. Use a shop vac. This is the most disgusting of the three options. Still, it may be the most practical. Just be sure to fill the bottom of the vac with water and a little dish soap. This will neutralize any live cicadas so they'll be easier to discard.
The coming emergence of Brood-X is an event that happens only once every 17 years. So, it's going to bring lots of cicadas to a few select locations in the US. And depending on your viewpoint, you can either be excited or anxious about it.
If you're a homeowner in the path of swarming cicadas, it's best not to plant any new trees right now. And if there are any saplings in the backyard, it would be wise to cover them. Also, get ready to hose down those pesky bugs if needed.
For children and scientists, it will be a wonderful time of discovery. So, it's best not to let this rare event go by without reflecting on it. And every byte of data concerning these fascinating cicadas should be collected. After all, understanding our place in the universe requires it.