Cicadas: Potential Nuisance but not Harmful


Fairfax County Office of Public Affairs
12000 Government Center Parkway, Suite 551
Fairfax, VA 22035-0065
703-324-3187, TTY 703-324-2935, FAX 703-324-2010

May 3, 2004

 

Cicadas: Potential Nuisance but not Harmful

 

Starting in mid-May, until the end of June, Fairfax County residents will witness a romance that only happens once every 17 years. The “Brood X” cicadas will emerge to mate.

With black bodies about 1- to 1.5-inches long, the red-eyed, orange-winged insects might look menacing to some people, but cicadas are no threat to people, pets and most plants. After spending 17 years underground, millions of these Rip van Winkles of the insect world will spend their remaining few weeks alive looking for love.

“Cicadas cannot bite or sting, and they are not poisonous or disease carriers either,” says Troy Shaw, an expert with the Fairfax County Forest Pest Program, a part of the county’s Department of Public Works and Environmental Services. “Their large numbers and loud love ‘songs’ are a potential annoyance, but they are harmless to people and pets.”

Cicadas cannot bite because their soda straw-like mouths are designed to suck sap from tree roots underground. Unlike bees and wasps, cicadas do not have stingers.

Although dogs and cats may enjoy eating these high-protein insects, do not let your pets eat many because their hard shells cause stomach problems. Consult a veterinarian if your pets vomit more than twice or look like they are in pain after eating cicadas.

Because they feed on sap, cicadas do not eat flowers, shrubs or trees. However, some young shrubs and trees can be damaged by the cicadas’ egg laying. To lay eggs, females cut a thin strip into the ends of branches that are between a minimum of one-fourth to three-eighths inches in diameter or about the thickness of a pencil. Affected branch ends will die, eventually dropping to the ground where the newly born nymphs will burrow into the soil.

For saplings or young trees, the damage can be serious, but for large or mature trees, the damage is negligible.

Female cicadas favor more than 200 varieties of shrubs and trees for depositing their offspring. The expectant mothers especially like oak, fruit and ornamental trees, such as apple, dogwood, peach, hickory, cherry and pear. Evergreens and conifers are not targeted often.

The best way to protect tender shrubs and young trees is to cover them with fine netting, which can be bought at garden supply stores or online. The netting should be three-eighths of an inch or smaller; be sure to tie off the netting at the trunk, so the cicadas can’t climb up into the branches. It is advisable to delay planting new shrubs or trees until the fall, when the cicadas are gone and the weather is optimal for new plant material.

Insecticides are not recommended as a means of control. Not only will there be too many cicadas to eradicate with sprays, but also the poison will kill beneficial insects.

While above ground, adult cicadas and nymphs do not eat. However, once below ground, the nymphs will spend the majority of their lives suckling on tree sap, which may be beneficial for trees according to scientists.

Because adult cicadas only live for two to six weeks, they will be gone by mid-June or the beginning of July. However, be prepared for their clumsy flight and loud mating songs.

“Cicadas fly, though not very well,” says Jim Pomeroy, manager of the Hidden Pond Nature Center. “Their slow lumbering flight carries them into buildings, cars, people and ultimately into the six arms or legs of a receptive mate.”

Male cicadas serenade females with songs as loud as 106 decibels, or at the volume of a lawnmower. Because of this operatic ability, the University of Florida’s Book of Insect Records awards cicadas with the title of loudest insect.

For more information about cicadas, contact Troy Shaw with the Fairfax County Forest Pest Program at 703-324-5304, TTY 711. Additional information may be found at the following Web pages: www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dpwes/environmental/pests.htm and www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/resources/cicadas.htm.


 

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