World War C: Cicadas are coming

A newly-molted cicada spotted in Cornwall Tuesday night. (Photo by Kathleen Muthig)

A newly-molted cicada spotted in Cornwall Tuesday night. (Photo by Kathleen Muthig)

This might be the ideal summer to finally acquire that long-coveted outdoor furniture at yard sales for next-to-nothing — because after the cicadas emerge from their 17 year-hiatus and start molting, droning and dying all over the place, many of us will abandon anything that has to do with the outdoors.

With as much drama as any Biblical plague account, red-eyed, Brood II magicicadas will soon emerge from their underground nymph-hood where they have been feeding off sap in roots for the past 17 years — virtually all of their life-cycle. According to Cornell University entomologist Cole Gilbert, the nymphs will appear from the ground nearly simultaneously and en masse. Once the soil temperature hits a balmy 65 degrees, they’ll start digging a hole from the roots to the surface and get ready to shed their exoskeletons. Then they climb a nearby tree and leave their shell behind, their white flesh and red eyes making them look like an ancient relic as they dangle from the branches.

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The cicadas have about four to six weeks left until they mate and die. According to Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Hudson Laboratory’s own bug specialist, Peter Jentsch, it will be a long four to six weeks for area residents.

“People will basically believe this is the end of the world and want to sell their homes and go to Florida,” he joked, referring to the concerned and exacerbated phone calls he got during the 1996 emergence. Though the insects are harmless, the loud buzz the cicadas will make all night by rubbing their ribs can be maddening, Jentsch explained. He said that it is believed that the volume and sound they produce actually reduce bird activity until its conclusion at their end of their life cycle.

“It’s not the time to have an outdoor wedding, that’s for sure,” said Jentsch.

After the great dying time, birds and ants will feast on the cicada carcasses. “The birds basically have a field day after their mating,” Jentsch said. He added that ants are important players in this natural drama because of they cut the bugs up into little pieces and carry them away like über-efficient ground soldiers on a scavenging mission.

Brood II adults will populate a narrow band from western Massachusetts and Connecticut, as well as the HudsonValley, south to northern and western North Carolina.

Fruit trees at risk

Good news? They don’t bite or sting. The rest? Well, they don’t bite or sting. They are large, clumsy and the carcasses of their shells and corpses emit an olfactory offence. But what are they going to do to the land?

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a group of gardeners were chatting around a flat of heirloom tomatoes in a local home gardening nursery, questioning what cicadas will do, if anything, to their vegetable gardens. Should we plant? Should we skip this year?

Elizabeth Higgins, the agriculture program leader at Ulster County Cornell Cooperative Extension, said cicadas will not be a bother to vegetables, flowers or herbs.

Fruit trees, on the other hand, are going to be an altogether different scenario. “You can see the trees are an important part of their cycle,” said Higgins, explaining that the cicadas nourish on the sugars of the trees. Young stone fruit trees (pears, plums, necatarines and peaches) are what cicadas literally live for. Higgins said the young branches and tips of those trees are often of most concern — usually about a half-inch or less in diameter — because the bugs will lay their eggs and the 1 millimeter-sized baby nymphs which will hatch about two months later and split the tender wood. The pinpoint-sized nymphs fall to the ground and begin their 17-year cycle, burrowing into ground and feeding off the rootling with their miniscule needle-like beaks, staying underground and shedding four times until the last six weeks of their lives.

Cornell is recommending to those with fruit trees to wrap the tree tips and half-inch diameter branches with quarter-inch netting or cheesecloth to protect the trees from damage. Higgins also said if you see a cicada on your tree branches or tips, just gently shake it off.  Regular vegetable, flower and herb gardens will not be disturbed, she said.  “There are some insect killers if people are seeing serious issues,” said Higgins. “The plants they damage this year should come back next year just fine though.”

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