stars-storyAfter last appearing in 1999 and before that in 1982, the periodical cicadas will be making their return this spring.

At some point this spring, based on the soil temperature, but most likely around the middle of May, the cicadas will emerge from the ground, climb up onto the trunks of trees, where they will molt (leaving empty cicada “shells” on the tree trunks) and take off in search of mates. Before long the woods and fields will be filled with their singing.

Although people occasionally call them locusts, they really aren’t locusts at all, but it is easy to see how people could see the seemingly sudden emergence of a cicada brood as some sort of Biblical locust-like plague. My father called them locusts, and used to tell me they were singing the drawn-out word “pharaoh,” phaaaaaaroh, phaaaaaroh, over and over again.

The emergence of a swarm is almost a magical event, which may have a lot to do with the cicadas’ Latin name Magicicada.

Although certain species of cicada are found throughout the world, or may occur every year (like the “dog day” cicada), the Periodical Cicada are only found in the eastern United States and come in 17-year, and 13-year varieties (apparently having a thing for prime numbers). There are 12 17-year broods and three 13-year broods with the 13-year broods occurring further south. Two broods, the “Connecticut Brood” and the “Florida Brood” have supposedly gone extinct. Different regional broods appear at different times, for instance Brood II appeared in the northeastern states in 2013.

Although there had been reports on cicada emergences going back to early exploration and settlement days, the 17-year periodical nature of the cicadas wasn’t observed until shortly before the American Revolution.

It has to be interesting to look at the outside world in 17-year chunks. When these cicadas went underground, Bill Clinton was the President, and September 11 was just another day. One can only wonder what the world will be like for Brood V when it reemerges in 2033.

This spring, animals that eat cicadas (pretty much everything) are literally going to party like it’s 1999. The emergence of a delicious cicada brood represents a huge gift.

Ironically, most animals in the wild live their entire lives without ever even seeing a cicada brood; the birds, reptiles and mammals that will be feasting on adult cicadas this spring are probably the great-great-great-offspring of the animals that feasted on the adult cicadas 17 years ago.

For the cicada as a species, there is safety in numbers. For birds and other predators, they are easy pickings, but they can’t possibly eat all of them. The term for this sort of survival species is predator satiation, or overwhelming by sheer numbers. One hypothesis for the long periods between emergences and for emerging on undividable (prime number) years is to keep predators from adjusting to cicada broods and adjusting their birth rates accordingly.

People also eat cicadas, supposedly they are tasty and chock full of protein with minimal carbs. There are numerous recipes online that will undoubtedly be useful in planning your cicada party (Sorry I can’t make it; I’m going to be busy that day). For the record, they also make great fish bait, as I discovered during the 1982 emergence. Stick a live cicada on a hook, flip it out onto the surface of a pond, and then watch out!

Although they don’t intentionally bite or sting people (some people have reported confused cicadas trying feed or lay eggs on them) your trees are another story. The female cicadas lay their eggs in small branches or twigs and can definitely cause them some damage. After the brood subsides, our woods and trees will be full of trees with brown, dead and dying branch ends, called flags.

Not many people had the internet when Brood V visited last time, but a quick search of the internet brings up the following recommendations to protect your trees:

Use netting to protect small, wimpy trees. Buy it now and beat the rush.

Put foil around the trunks of trees to keep them from climbing up.

Most sites discourage the use of herbicides to help prevent collateral damage to other, beneficial species like bees. Supposedly family pets have been known to get sick or die after eating pesticide covered cicadas.

Larger trees will probably take the cicada swarm in stride with little more than flagging to show for it. Although the cicadas take nutrients from the tree roots, they always add them back to the ground after they die – nature works that way.

Hardy native species that have coexisted on this continent with cicadas for countless millennia obviously have an advantage over imported decorative tree species.

Finally, just accept that some of your trees are going to be damaged, but it probably won’t kill them. Take comfort in the knowledge that you won’t have to worry about them again until 2033, and by that time they could be somebody else’s problem.

Jim Freeman is the wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at [email protected]