Depending on where you live, 2013 could be the year of the cicada. Not the green dog-day cicadas that emerge every year, but the periodical, Magicicada type that crawl out of the ground every 13 or 17 years in North America. (No, they are not locusts, as early settlers believed.) Scientists record and track these emergences in different parts of the country, labeling each as one of several broods.
It just so happens that 2013 marks the year Brood II comes out of the ground, and so cicadas will buzz about throughout the Carolina Piedmont and Mid-Atlantic states through southern New England. It will be a loud, gregarious few weeks, and females will look to lay their eggs on the tender young branches of fruit and hardwood trees. They cut slits in new twigs of forest using their saw-like ovipositor, a special organ to deposit eggs.
While cicadas will rarely bother well-established trees, the onslaught of cicada eggs could kill branch tips, weakening and potentially permanently damaging the branch structure of younger trees.
"These species have synchronized their lifecycles, we think, to overwhelm predators and/or disease agents that might otherwise affect them," says entomologist Clyde Sorenson, PhD, professor at North Carolina State University.
Scientists call this strategy "predator satiation" or "predator swamping." The cicadas emerge in such huge numbers there are simply too many for the resident predators to completely wipe out before the cicadas can successfully mate. "We think that these lifecycles have evolved to synchronize to the prime numbers 13 and 17 to make it difficult for natural enemies to synchronize to their emergences," he says.
This natural occurrence, unique to the Eastern United States, is especially special for scientists and nature enthusiasts. "I am excited by these emergences—I think they are among the most dramatic and spectacular phenomena in the animal kingdom," says entomologist Clyde Sorenson, PhD, professor at North Carolina State University. "Insects that may number in the hundreds of thousands per acre—representing, at the highest densities, hundreds of pounds of insect protein—that appear almost overnight, are a marvel, and the emergences pose many wonderful questions about evolution and insect behavior."
Eric Day, PhD, an entomologist at Virginia Tech University, thinks these cicada emergences are pretty neat, too. The periodically emerging cicadas are native to North America—there's really nothing like it anywhere else. These critters live underground, active and feeding and developing at a very slow rate for 17 years before heading above ground. "The advantage of that is that they typically will avoid lot of predators," he says. "There's no predator that can match its life cycle with the cicadas."
Day's also a farmer, though. And in that role, he sympathizes with other growers because cicadas can do a number on fruit trees. Luckily, he says most orchard managers track and map the cicada emergence and avoid planting trees in the one or two years leading up to a big cicada frenzy.
Check it Out: Cicada Emergence Maps
There are 15 broods of periodical cicadas—3 broods of 13-year cicadas, found primarily in the south, and 12 broods 17-year cicadas with a more northerly distribution. Each brood is more or less geographically distinct from the other broods, so that folks living in any one area typically only experience periodical cicadas once every 13 or 17 years.
If you live in a cicada hot spot, expect the insects to emerge in late April or early May, sticking around until about mid-June. Day said it's probably best to avoiding planting new trees this spring if you're in the cicada zone. Instead, wait until fall. You can purchase fine netting to protect small trees already on your property. "It will be completely safe to plant trees in these areas this fall because the adult cicadas will be long gone," Sorenson says. "They'll all die by sometime in June, and the next crop of adults won't show up until your "new" tree has had 16 growing seasons!
Of course, there are other ways to deal with cicadas. While the birds feast on this unusual treat, you can, too. The New York Daily News recently outlined gourmet ways to dine on cicadas, including cicada-topped pizza.
Regardless if you work cicadas into your cuisine or just enjoy listening to the epic 17-year buzz, cherish the natural spectacle. "They will only be around for about 5 weeks or so, and they won't be back until 2030," Sorenson says. "If they're emerging in your area, enjoy them! You'll be a good deal older before you see them again."
Published on: April 16, 2013
Updated on: April 17, 2013