Periodical cicadas return

Periodical cicadas, different from seasonal cicadas seen each summer in the region, have begun hatching in Four Seasons Country.

BLUEFIELD — The dreaded 17-year cicada has arrived in Four Seasons Country.

According to Jodi Richmond, WVU Extension Agent and County Program Coordinator for Mercer County, the brood IX of the periodical cicada has arrived in Mercer County and many residents reported hundreds in their yards this week.

“Periodical cicadas are the ones that burrow into the ground for a dormancy period of either 13 or 17 years depending upon species as opposed to annual cicadas which we see in small amounts every year,” Richmond said. “Mercer County has two “broods” or main groups of cicada, Brood IX is the one that is appearing in mass this year. It will cover many areas of southern West Virginia. and Southwest Virginia.”

Richmond explained the reasoning behind the cicadas’ periodical return and what they’re objectives are. As most of nature, it is the continuance of their species. She sees their mating calls as romantic in nature.

“Cicadas seem to have flown out of a science fiction movie being nearly two inches long, appearing in mass, leaving piles of exoskeleton shells strewn about and having striking red orange eyes,” Richmond said. “The males can be heard in the evening serenading females by vibrating the membranes in their abdomen. Some have described this sound as an alien-like wail but the more romantically-inclined call it beautiful. Females will cut slits into twigs and lay eggs (this is called flagging). The eggs will hatch, larva will burrow into the ground where they will stay dormant for 17 more years. The entire process will last up to 6 weeks. Birds, snakes, turtles and even raccoons will feed on them.”

While the return of the periodical cicada may be worrisome to some people, both Richmond and John Blankenship, Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Agent, agree that the cicadas are not a direct threat to humans.

“While immature cicadas can do damage to plant roots underground, damage from cicadas primarily comes from females cutting slits to lay eggs,” Richmond said. “New growth is most susceptible so it is advised that no new shrubs or trees be planted until after the cicada breeding season has passed. Adults typically only live two to four weeks and all activity of this brood should be over by six weeks from now.”

“Even though they look and sound rather damaging, they are not a threat to humans,” Blankenship said. “They do not pose a danger to humans or to feeding on plants. They do lay their eggs while they are here this year and females select branches or vines that they lay their eggs in about the size of a pencil-width branch. They bore into that branch and lay their eggs.”

Blankenship’s advice to farmers in Tazewell, Va. is to not be concerned. This is another cycle of nature continuing despite human’s interference.

“My advice to farmers in Tazewell, is not to be concerned. It happens every 17 years and they are not a real threat to us as far as being dangerous. They may have a little bit of feeding, but no different than any of the other insects that are out there,” Blankenship said. “They say that they can be overwhelming in numbers but they do not pose a danger is the main message. It is not like the grasshoppers, we have years where we have a lot of grasshoppers and they will eat the crops and there is a real problem there, but the cicadas are not like that.”

According to documentation from the Virginia Cooperative Extension from Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, the damage to be expected from the periodical cicada is mostly a concern for certain types of plants.

“In Virginia both the 17 and 13 year cicadas damage many ornamental and hardwood trees,” the report reads. “Oaks are commonly attacked but the most seriously damaged are newly planted fruit and ornamental trees such as apple, dogwood, peach, hickory, cherry, and pear. Pines and other conifers are not commonly attacked. Damage caused by nymphs feeding on plant roots is considered very minor. The adults do not feed on the upper portions of the tree after they emerge, but egg laying by the female cicadas causes significant damage to small twigs.”

Considering their nearly decade-long wait to emergence, the life cycle of the cicada must be taken into consideration. Adults start appearing in Virginia in early May and peak in early June.

“Immature periodical cicadas (nymphs) develop underground and feed on sap from plant roots. After 13 or 17 years below ground, mature nymphs construct a mud turret called a cicada hut and emerge from the soil and climb onto nearby vegetation or any vertical surface,” the report reads. “They then molt to the winged adult stage. Their shed outer skins or ‘exoskeletons’ are frequently found attached to tree trunks and twigs. The emergence is often tightly synchronized, with most adults appearing within a few nights. Adult cicadas live for only two to four weeks.”

Periodical cicadas are most damaging to small young trees that have the most desirable branch size for egg laying. Most experts advise against planting younger trees and vegetation in the years surround their emergence.

— Contact Emily Rice at erice@bdtonline.com

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