The cicadas are coming!
Okay, calm down — don’t get all nervous and run to grab the bug spray. However, Long Island will be a participant in this year’s big bug event — the emergence of billions of U.S. Brood X cicadas.
Periodical cicadas, with the longest life span of any insect, spend the first 17 years of their lives underground as nymphs, which are what one calls baby cicadas. For the record, these are not Baby Yoda cute. They are sort of Alien scary-looking. In the spring of that 17th year, they burrow their way to the surface and emerge for what is essentially a multi-week raucous insect orgy. You really don’t have to worry about damage to your plants, because mating is the only thing cicadas have on the brain when they’re above ground.
Unlike locusts, a much more destructive kind of pest they’re often confused with, cicadas don’t even eat during their Rumspringa. They crawl out of the ground, climb the nearest vertical surface, shed their exoskeleton, stretch their wings, and start looking for love.
While the appearance of cicadas varies a bit from one brood to another, all three Brood X varieties share some common traits. They all have black bodies, large red eyes and clear, orange-veined wings. The bug’s body is about an inch and a half long, with a wingspan of three to four inches.
The males have organs on both sides of their abdomen called tymbals, which they pop in and out to make that unique mating call, which can reach 90 decibels. You may also hear wing-clicking, which is the way a female cicada responds to the male’s call.
Exactly when they will emerge is a bit tricky to call. It all depends on the weather, and the weather this spring has been a little manic-depressive. Every time it seems safe to put your winter coat away, the temperature takes another dive. The cicadas stay snug underground until the soil temperature 8 inches below the surface reaches 64 degrees.
According to Dan Gilrein, an entomologist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, the East End is likely to hit that threshold around late May, but he says there’s no need for alarm — or too much excitement — over the Brood X invasion in our region. “The upcoming emergence seems to be the big news in the region, but unfortunately, Brood X is not expected to provide much, if any, of a show.”
Unfortunately, one possible reason for the diminished show of cicadas during emergent periods in recent years is deforestation. When trees are cut down to clear building lots, the nymphs that rely on those tree roots for sustenance are left to starve.
“They were hard to find on Long Island in 2004 (the last time this brood emerged). East Setauket and Connetquot State Park were two locations where they were apparently seen, but not in very large numbers,” he explained. “Areas to the west of us in Maryland, southeast Pennsylvania and elsewhere will see some very high populations in spots. I’m not expecting to see anything close to that on Long Island.”
If you’re thinking that you remember a cicada alert much more recently than 2004, you’re right — broods are numbered based on the years they emerge. So, while it’s been 17 years since the three species that comprise Brood X have been seen, the Northeast did have Brood V emerge in 2016, and eastern Long Island will host Brood XIV in 2025.
Also, this region is home to annual cicadas, a variety with a much shorter life span that emerges mid-summer every year on Long Island. They don’t emerge in the same huge numbers the periodical variety do, but, Mr. Gilrein said, “Most people have heard the buzzing call of the males from high in the trees.”
Mr. Gilrein said it might be hard to find evidence of this year’s periodical cicada emergence on the East End.
“Any that do appear on Long Island may easily go unnoticed,” he said. “Sharp-eyed and sharp-eared watchers may hear some sounds of the males calling higher in the trees. They may find the orange-veined wings remaining on the ground from cicadas that have been consumed by predators, or, if they’re lucky, the cicadas themselves emerging from the ground, or the cast off ‘skins’ remaining attached where they emerged. In areas where they are more abundant, the insects themselves will likely be evident on plants and surfaces.”
In addition to their somewhat alarming appearance, cicadas are also very clumsy fliers known to crash into people on occasion. And if you happen to walk under a tree hosting a cicada party, you might experience “cicada rain,” a sprinkling of cicada pee.
But Mr. Gilrein said there is no need to spray, or really do anything else to ward them off.
“Cicadas are not harmful to humans or animals and they don’t bite,” he noted. “They’re quite gentle, in fact. The females can damage plants in a limited way — they lay eggs in thin twigs, which can cause dieback or even breakage from the wounding, but it is usually of no consequence unless there are a lot of cicadas and these are young, recently planted orchard, landscape or nursery trees.”
The cicadas will be active above ground for a few weeks. The males will emerge first, giving them a window to practice their mating song before the females emerge. The males die after mating, while the females live long enough to lay their eggs, another three to five days.
When the eggs hatch, after six to 10 weeks, the nymphs will fall to the ground and burrow in. And there they will stay, growing slowly, feeding on sap from tree roots and waiting 17 years for their own moment in the sun.
Not only aren’t cicadas a danger, but Mr. Gilrein points out that they are beneficial to the environment in a number of ways. “They provide a bonanza food source for many creatures during these emergence periods, and the nymphs may be a food source for creatures at other times as well.”
Cicadas are apparently an irresistible treat not only to wild animals, but to pets as well. Dogs love to gorge themselves on the crunchy flying snacks, and they make excellent bait for fishing. People eat them as well — barbecued, broiled, pan fried, even on kabobs.
“I think cicadas — a large, hard-to-miss and not unattractive insect — can be a way to bring people together to learn about, discuss and appreciate the amazing phenomenon, and insects in general,” Mr. Gilrein said. “There is a fair amount of irrational or misplaced fear about insects, and cicadas are one way to help people understand how important insects are, and to draw attention to our role in and stewardship of the environment.
“I find cicadas to be quite beautiful and interesting creatures, personally, and the sound of the males calling high in the trees is kind of other-worldly,” he added. “I hope some readers get to experience that.”
Lisa Daffy is the author of the popular The Accidental Beekeeper column for The Express News Group. She is also a freelance writer and marketing consultant in Southampton.