They're back!

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Cicadas return after 17 years

By John Barnhart

    They’re big, loud and have bulging red eyes. There are millions of them and wildlife as well as pet dogs think they are delicious. A few people have even admitted to eating them.


    The cicadas are here!
    It’s an epic that has been 17 years in the making. The bizarre-looking insects you’ve been seeing got their start in 1995. That year, during their last emergence, female cicadas made slits in the bark of small tree limbs and laid eggs in a row. When the eggs hatched, the cicada nymphs dropped to the ground and began burrowing.
    According to Eric Day, the Virginia Tech Extension entomologist, the cicada nymphs attached themselves to tree roots and began using their piercing mouth parts to suck tree sap. Day said that there is no evidence that they harm the trees. There aren’t enough of them on any one tree to do any damage.    
    They’ve been there for 17 years, sucking sap underground, until this spring. Day said that they began  to tunnel upward about two months ago. Some build little mud turrets around the holes where they emerge.
    When the soil temperature hits 60F, they come up and orient toward the nearest dark, upright structure. That’s normally a tree. They crawl up the tree and molt. From the shell of the subterranean nymph, the winged form emerges.    
    From that point on, the  cicadas begin to make a great racket as the males look for mates.
    “They do all the hollering,” said Day.
    Day said their sounds include rumbles, whines and, sometimes, a siren sound. He added that they can be pretty loud.
    “They’re going to be out for another month,” Day said. He said that they will reach their peak, in numbers, in about a week.
    Once they are out, they do little more than fly around, mate and die. They survive off their fat reserves rather than eating.
    There are cicada species all over the world, but no other continent has anything like the ones we see now.
    “Periodical cicadas are unique to North America,” Day said.
    Virginia is the farthest south the 17-year cicadas come. Those farther south follow a 13-year cycle.
    As far as dealing with them, Day advises people to take a “grin and bear it” approach. He said that they irritate some people and annoy some, while other people are amused.
    They pose no threat to humans.
    “They don’t sting or bite,” Day said.
    The provide a feast for animals.
    “Birds will just gorge themselves on then,” he said.
    Dogs like them so much that “you don’t have to put any dog food out” when the cicadas are around.
    Day admits to having eaten some, himself.
    “They’re not bad,” he commented.
    “They’re annoying, they really are,” said Scott Baker, the Virginia Tech Extension agent for Bedford County. “It is an annoying creature.”
    Baker said that, along with being totally harmless to humans, they are mostly harmless to plants. They pose no threat to mature trees, although very young trees could be harmed by the female’s egg-laying.
    Because they are mostly harmless to plants, Baker said that trying to get rid of them will do more harm than good. Spraying with insecticide is not warranted as this could kill beneficial insects, such as pollinators, in the process.
    “It’s more of a nuisance species than anything else,” Baker said.
    Cicadas are also an amazing species.
    “They have that huge life cycle underground,” he said. “Then they emerge and, in a few weeks, they’re gone.”
    So, if they irritate you, “block your ears, it won’t last long,” Baker said.
    But, they are fascinating.
    “I just enjoy looking at them,” Baker added.
    For more information about 17-year cicadas, go to http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/444/444-276/444-276.html.
    By the way, if you find the cicadas amusing, you may get another chance to see them in abundance next year. Kathy Nelson, Bedford Area Master Gardeners Association publicity chairman, notes that Bedford County is at the perimeter of the 2012 and 2013 emerging populations of periodical cicadas.