These Cyclical Critters are Invading the Northeast on Several Fronts this Spring, but they’re Here to Make Love, Not War.
You’d think, with the brouhaha in the media, social and otherwise, that millions of red-eyed, winged creatures are, as you read this, emerging en masse from the ground, creating ear-throttling noise in pursuit of species-furthering passion, violating tree branches with their egg-laying endeavors, and leaving carcass hulls in their wake. And, you’d be right. But while this season’s “brood ll” 17-year periodical cicadas —Magicicada septendecim — will certainly disrupt sleep, sully windshields, and fatten four-legged, winged, finned and even human predators, they don’t bite, sting, poison or spread diseases. They cause nominal damage to foliage. There is, in other words, virtually no reason to hurry their demise.
Yet, when I enter “cicada” into my Google search bar, it guesses — fourth down in choices — that the next word typed might be “killer.” Which got me realizing that when humans, generally speaking, can’t figure out how to use a species to their benefit, they are quick to view it as “invasive.” (Which always begs the observation of which species has pulled fossil fuels from the ground and spilled them willy-nilly planetwide; and positioned a Home Depot every three feet or so; and reproduced at rates, and with lifespans, that would put a little damage to some young apple trees in humbling perspective, if we were genetically capable of humility.) By mid-July, the cicadas will have fulfilled their biological imperative. Their eggs will hatch, larvae will return to their roots — of trees, that is — and many, many carcasses will remain. Uses for these abound, from fishing bait to garden mulch (their tough chitin shells effectively block weeds and contain moisture) to craft projects. If you are concerned about young trees whose branches might serve as nesting areas (fruit trees, in particular), net them now, in advance of the love fest’s resulting egg-laying spree. (Females don’t start to lay eggs until a week postemergence, at the earliest.) Use cheesecloth or reusable plastic netting, like that made by Industrial Netting, a Minnesota-based company with a strong record of environmental stewardship. Their cicada netting is made from nontoxic polypropylene resins, and it can be reused to protect plantings from foraging wildlife.
Yet, one theory, from the wildly informative website Magicicada.org, as to the ecological functions cicadas serve is to effectively prune trees through this ovipositing process, stimulating future growth. Chris Maier, an entomologist with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, told me that in his experience, neither netting nor insecticides are completely effective, because “the female cicadas seem to still manage to lay some eggs in twigs.” More effective insecticides are also highly toxic to everything else in range. His recommendation? “That people enjoy the emergence, and not worry about minor tree damage.” Then he let me down gently, with the news that they won’t be making a guest appearance in my vicinity. (We have a huge oak tree in our backyard, the sap of which cicadas have a special hankering for. I’ve been hyping the event to my kids for months, and filling my hens’ tiny heads with tall tales of an all-you-can-eat bug buffet.) Maier clued me in on where in Connecticut and New York to spot them, however. Magicicada Preserve on River Road in Hamden, Connecticut, is a 90-acre parcel that lies north of River Road and immediately east of the Mill River; it has one of the largest populations in the state. (They hadn’t emerged there yet as of May 27, but he predicts they will be out in full force by the first few days of June.) There are many roadside populations in New York’s Hudson River Valley, particularly along Route 9 on both sides of the river in Orange, Ulster, Greene, Dutchess, and Columbia Counties. Have you spotted one (or hundreds) yet? Check here for a live map of cicada sightings — from Savannah, Georgia through North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut to the Rhode Island border.