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Attack of the 17-Year Cicadas!


Attack of the 17-Year Cicadas!

Q. Britt writes: "I'm feeling ducky in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and have been hearing a lot about cicadas lately. Apparently, we're in for a giant emergence of periodical cicadas this summer. I've never been near a cicada emergence, but it sounds like this is a good time to invest in earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones. From what I've learned, they shouldn't be a problem for my plants, because they don't seem to eat after they emerge.

"But is there any benefit to having piles of dead Cicadas around? Can they be pitched into the compost bin? I know, "having a lot of something doesn't mean you should use it", but they're going to lay around and decompose into the landscape anyhow. It'd be great if I could at least clean up the driveways and sidewalks after they're deceased.

"Otherwise, I'm just looking forward to checking them out. I've got four adventurous nieces ages eight and under and I can't wait to send them pictures and videos. But I'll probably be less excited after a couple days of bugs screaming."

A. Well, you win a prize for that last line, as cicadas are in the family of true bugs (as opposed to flies, beetles, ants, lepidoptera, etc.) They are loud, but some people find it a soothing background noise, like crickets on a warm summer night. Other people do not. There are two types: annual and periodical. Annual cicadas show up in small numbers every summer, but the periodicals are the real stars of the cicada stage. And you are correct that 2021 is almost certainly going to be a banner year for bug heads, as we will be hosting Brood X, the most famous of these heavily researched groups.

Back in 2004, this brood emerged in huge numbers from the soil, climbed up onto trees, shrubs, and walls, and shed their exoskeletons, bursting out with big red beady eyes, candy apple green and dark black bodies and translucent wings. Then they made their mating call, which is different from that of the annual cicada. They mated, the females climbed up on trees and shrubs, made little slits in the branches, laid their eggs therein and then promptly died. Once the eggs hatched, the larvae dropped to the ground and hastily burrowed down deep to slowly suck on plant roots. That was seventeen years ago, and instead of getting ready for college, these offspring are just now getting ready to be adults. At least for a couple of days.

They are not considered to be a danger to plants. The insertion of the eggs generally does no harm, and the babies deep underground feed very slowly. After all, they got a lot of time to kill.

Brood X is known as 'the Great Eastern Brood' and is scheduled to appear in 15 states and Washington, D.C. (including Michigan). Brood X was first described in 1715 by the pastor of 'the Old Swedes Church' in Philadelphia. Later the famed botanist John Bartram (also in Philly) figured out the emergence times of the Brood and their method of egg laying. His son Moses Bartram followed with details of the larvae hatching and "burrowing into the first opening they can find". This year's emergence is expected to be in the billions of bugs; and that is exactly how they survive as a species. There are just more of them around at any one time than any bird or other insect eater can handle. Gonna be a lot of fat and happy birds this summer.

One of the things I find most interesting is the fact that they leave behind two bodies: the exoskeleton, glued to a wall or a tree and the adult body, which when they number in the thousands can make for a really crunchy driveway. Kids are always spooked when a big adult buzzes into them (they are not especially good fliers) but I always found the Alien-like exoskeletons to be especially creepy.

Their bodies are nitrogen rich and do a good job of feeding the soil after they expire. So one method of cleanup would be to just sweep or 'leaf blow' the carcasses around the base of trees and shrubs; or spread them out over an asparagus patch if you got one. They would make an excellent addition to a compost pile as long as it contains lots of shredded leaves to balance out the nitrogen. Oh, and if you're adventurous, it is said that they taste like asparagus.

I would be remiss if I did not now mention the famous 'cicada killing wasp'. Although fairly large for a wasp, the female must attack and sting an adult cicada many times her size and then get it over to the nest hole she has prepared in your lawn. If her prey lands on the ground, she drags it. If it gets caught up in a tree, she has to try and fly it back down. Notice that she does not so much fly but plummet. Then she drags it to the hole, drops her eggs on top and fills in the hole, allowing her developing larvae to consume the large bug over time. A charming bedtime tale for the kiddies.

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