Coming Soon To A Tree Near You

It has taken them 13 years to make their return to be seen by the public in Tennessee with their ugly, large red eyes, but the first news releases are out announcing their upcoming arrival. Sometime during the month of May, thousands will be seen dead on the roadways and under trees. All across Middle Tennessee and other parts of the state, their loud buzz will be heard almost to the point that ear protection will barely cover up the “love songs” they sing for their mates. They will swarm lawn mowers and weedeaters, thinking that the machines are one of their kind, which makes them not only ugly, but also somewhat stupid in our scheme of things. That could be one reason people back in 1998 on their arrival from a 13-year sleep under the ground, nicknamed these flying insects the “kamikaze screamers.”

University of Tennessee Extension entomologist Dr. Frank Hale reports when soil temperatures reach about 67 degrees at a depth of four inches, large numbers, which means in the millions, of big-eyed cicadas are expected to emerge from the soils of more than one-third of the state’s 95 counties. He says the largest numbers will be in the Middle Tennessee area and the adult males will start their courting songs four or five days after they dig their way out. The counties with the largest numbers should be, but are not limited to: Bedford, Blount, Bradley, Cannon, Cheatham, Coffee, Davidson, Decatur, DeKalb, Franklin, Giles, Hamilton, Jackson, Lewis, Lincoln, Loudon, Macon, Marion, Maury, Marshall, McMinn, Meigs, Monroe, Moore, Putnam, Rhea, Rutherford, Smith, Stewart, Sumner, Trousdale, Warren, Wayne, Williamson and Wilson.

You may find the “love song” of the male irritating, but Hale says it’s the females that can cause damage to your landscape, especially young trees. “After the males attract females with their song, mating occurs and females begin laying eggs inside the branches of woody plants. A female cicada has a knife-like ovipositor that she uses to slit twigs before she lays eggs inside the slits,” he said.  

“A single female cicada can lay anywhere from 24 to 28 eggs in each slit she cuts, and she can cut anywhere from 5 to 20 slits in a single twig.” Hale explains that each female can lay a total of 400 to 600 eggs and that the egg punctures pose a threat to young trees.

“Apple, pear, dogwood, oak and hickory are their favorite hosts, but you can see the puncture marks on many tree species,” Hale says. “The punctures can damage young transplanted trees in nurseries and orchards causing the twig tips to wilt and die.”

Massive brood emergence is believed to overwhelm predators, which are mostly birds. In other words, they survive due to there being too many for the birds to eat. They come out in waves, with the first group being eaten by birds (you know, the early bird gets the worm or cicada), which soon get their fill and leave the next wave of bugs alone. As more and more cicada arrive on the scene, there are soon too many bugs for the birds to eat. They are then allowed to do what they are suppose to do every 13 years, which is for the male to find a female and mate. They don’t eat plants or cause major crop damage. They just sing their loud “love song” to attract another cicada, mate and die. See why I said they are stupid bugs. They have one job to do in their life and it takes them 13 years to do it.

People even predict the future with these big red-eyed bugs. It was reported when they appeared in 1985 their wings had the letter “p” on them meaning peace. In 1998 their wings had the letter “w” on them, which a lot of folks said meant war. Wonder what letter will it be this year? Maybe it will be like a modern day text message and be the three letters “lol” for “laugh out loud.”

If you have had large numbers of these before, Hale says certain preventative measures should be followed. “Delay pruning young fruit trees until after cicada emergence so damaged branches can be removed and a proper scaffolding of branches can be established. When feasible, small, valuable shrubs and trees may be covered with a loose woven or spun fabric such as cheesecloth or floating row cover for protection while cicadas are present.” Hale says insecticides have not proven to be effective. Nymphs grow slowly and they feed on sap from roots until the spring of their 13th year, when they emerge to start the cycle again.

I’m just thankful they don’t bite or sting and only come around every 13 years. They are sort of like a new property tax appraisal. It only happens every five years, causes big red eyes and a lot of buzzing, and dies off until the next one comes around.  

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– Pettus L. Read is editor of the Tennessee Home & Farm magazine and may be contacted by e-mail at pread@tfbf.com