By now you’ve probably heard that a large portion of the state will be beset with the 17-year periodical cicada. Before you run for the hills in fear, let’s take a moment to look at these six-legged annoyances and what effect, if any, they’ll have in your garden.
What is a periodical cicada?
We have some cicadas every year, so what is different every 17th year? There are actually two different types of cicadas. Annual cicadas have a one-year life cycle, so they are present every year.
They’re sometimes called dog day cicadas because theirs is the annoying, incessant buzzing sound you hear from the trees during the dog days of summer. But they appear in limited numbers, not a huge onslaught.
Periodical cicadas, on the other hand, have either a 13 or 17 year life cycle (ours are 17) and appear in huge numbers during their adult year. They’ve been developing underground for 17 years and emerge to reproduce. Periodical cicadas also look different than their annual counterparts — they are typically much smaller.
You’ll commonly hear cicadas referred to as locusts, which is quite incorrect. There is such a thing as a locust, but it is a type of grasshopper (cicadas aren’t grasshoppers).
The mix-up probably comes from people comparing the emergence of the periodical cicada with the plagues of locusts from the Bible. Seems sort of fitting. However, the locusts that plagued the ancient world ate lots of crops and caused famine, whereas cicadas don’t technically do that much damage.
Should I be worried?
Yes and no. Cicadas will do some damage to certain plants, but they are by far not the worst thing to happen in the garden. They pose no threat to human health and do not bite or sting. The sound that they make in the summer may drive you crazy, but that’s about it.
The damage to plants comes from the female laying her eggs in twigs and branches that are around the size of a pencil. The twig usually ends up dying and falling off of the tree. If the tree is older, and well established with lots of limbs, the damage will pose no overall concern for plant health.
Where the concern will lie is with young or newly-planted trees with a limited number of branches. If a tree only has a few small branches to begin with, the loss of a majority or all of the branches could lead to poor health and even death of the tree.
Of course, you have to be in the right place to be affected. Periodical cicadas are unusual in that there are different broods throughout the country that emerge in different years. In 2016, Brood V is the one that will make an appearance over much of central and northern West Virginia. Their territory cuts across Kanawha County, roughly following Interstates 77 and 64, so damage will be limited south of Charleston.
Folks in northern Putnam, Mason, Jackson and Fayette Counties and north will see cicadas this year. The southeast corner of the state (Greenbrier, Monroe, etc.) won’t see the periodical cicadas until 2022 and the southwest corner (Cabell, Wayne, and the coalfields) won’t see the periodical cicadas until 2025. Those in the eastern panhandle will have their turn with the cicadas in 2021.
So what do I do?
The only thing you have to be worried about is small trees planted within the last few years. If there are a limited number of branches, you may want to cover them with a protective covering to limit damage. You can use horticultural row cover material available at your local garden center, or get crafty with a visit to the craft store. Material such as mesh or tulle, like what you use to make a tutu from can be wrapped around the branches of young trees to protect them.
Check around for good sales on the material, and keep in mind that many of the national craft stores have coupons on their website that can help get a large percentage off of the cost (if you have lots of trees, you’ll need quite a bit of it).
The cicadas do not emerge until soil temperatures are in the mid-60s, which should be about mid-May for most of the state. You’ll want to have your protections in place well before this happens.
I also don’t recommend planting new small trees in years when the cicadas emerge (or even the year before) so that you don’t have to worry about the damage. If at all possible, wait until next year to plant new trees in the cicada region.
You can also remove branches as they die or immediately when they fall to the ground to limit the number of nymphs from entering the ground. This may help reduce the population in your yard in 17 years.
So don’t stress out too much about the cicadas. Just protect young trees and avoid planting new ones. Be sure to have a good set of headphones to drown out the summer droning noises. And just keep in mind that they are in a way beneficial — they help aerate the soil, and the ones that don’t make it the whole 17 years do help provide nutrients to the soil. Just be prepared to hear the crunch of their little discarded exoskeletons underfoot and under tire as they shed their outer skins.