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The Last Laugh

He thought he’d play a trick on me.

Just turned fourteen, my son - with a captive audience of a few friends – grabbed one of those crazy, clingy cicadas and threw it on me. But I grew up in a time when bugs were to be explored - tortured even, on lazy summer days - so I picked that orange-eyed, stocky-bodied cicada off my shirt and threw it right back at him.

The year was 2004 and the Washington D.C. metropolitan area was swarming with these big bugs that looked more like fairies filling the sky, clumsily splatting against windshields and littering the curbs with their half-eaten bodies (the birds were having a smorgasbord) as the Brood X hatch took on its seventeen-year emergence cycle of biblical proportions.

If you’ve never experienced this phenomenon, suffice to say that there’s no avoiding contact with these adult bugs that climb up from the ground all at once when the soil reaches 64 degrees. I’m told it happens at sunset and is expected in late April or May here on the East Coast, where the biggest hatch happens. The nymphs have been sucking on tree roots all this time and are now making their way to the surface (see the picture above of the one I recently dug up while gardening) where they will emerge as pale, wingless bugs, climb up the closest tree – brick wall, screened door or bush – they can find to shed their exoskeletons and fly away. Those skins look pretty prehistoric, by the way. Then the males will start a-singin’ their rather noisy mating song from the tops of nearby trees..

This cycle happens every year for a small amount of cicadae, and you probably recognize the buzz in the trees as the sound of summer, but this year when as many as a million a square acre will hatch, the roar will be more like a Def Leopard concert.

And that’s when the fun begins. Nature will revel right before our eyes and ears. Squirrels, chipmunks, owls, and birds will feast on the adult bodies that have finished their mission. Baby cicadas will be hatched on grooves in trees and begin their decent to the ground, where these rice-size neophytes will burrow underground for a long incubation period. The adults, on the other hand, having finished their copulation mission, will become half-eaten carcasses that will litter the ground for ants and other critters to finish off. It’s amazing. And not at all harmful to your garden.

All the cicadae eat – and eat quite slowly – are tree roots. The only thing in your garden that you may want to protect is young trees (4 years or younger) and especially young, fruit trees. If you want to throw a mosquito net or something over those saplings then the female cicadas will not land on them, deposit eggs and thus provide the thruway to the ground.

Whatever you do, don’t spray any pesticide to thwart the hatch – it will only be ingested by those things that eat the cicadae and thus poison the whole food chain.

You may want to consider postponing any major outdoor events like weddings or graduation parties if you live in the area from northern Georgia to New York and as far west as Illinois.

No one knows for sure why or how this particular hatch is so much larger and so precisely timed to 17 years. It’s almost just long enough to forget that nature has some real tricks are up her sleeve. Just like my son thought he had before I tossed that buzzing bug right back at him and he nearly crawled out of his skin.

Honestly. It’s just a harmless bug. And like my mom used to tell us: “Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it.” Maybe that’s why nature is referred to as “mother.” ;)


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