May 7, 2013

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The cicadas are coming

The 17-year cicada, on top, emerges in a few weeks.
Lower bug is the annual cicada.

HIGHLAND – Get out the earplugs.

Since before the turn of the millennium, an exodus has been brewing and in just a few weeks hundreds of millions of noisy 17-year cicada will emerge from the ground blanketing the Hudson Valley region and beyond. 

Ulster County Cornell Cooperative Extension Research Entomologist Peter Jentsch said the last time this 17-year species, or Magicicada, emerged was in 1996.

Since then they have been feeding quietly on the roots of trees, but when environmental temperatures are warm enough, the immature cicada will burrow out of the soil, mature into adulthood and complete the final stages of their life cycle.

This should be about the end of May or the first week in June, Jentsch said.

Deciduous trees such as maple, oak, ash, beech, elm, and cedar are optimal habitats for cicada, Jentsch explained, and once they’ve emerged, they typically cluster and stay around the environment and whatever tree or groups of trees they were feeding off of as nymphs.

“In the Hudson Valley we see very high populations right along the river, so here in Highland we have high populations, but across the river in Dutchess County toward Tivoli they have very large forested areas of oak and other deciduous trees that these insects prefer and the populations there are just astounding,” Jentsch said.

By “astounding” populations, Jentsch is referring to an estimated average of 3 million insects per acre in the Hudson Valley. This number is just an average, he explained, and it is variable based on the local environment’s proximity to water, deciduous forest density, and level of urbanization or agriculture.

More urbanized areas can expect less than the estimated average, whereas more optimal areas can expect upward of 5 million to 7 million insects per acre.

Campers and country folk should be familiar with the distinctive song of the annual cicada, but while the 17-year species is here there will be a near constant piercing rhythmic singing coming from about 1½ million males per acre, Jentsch said.

It is important to understand that the world is not coming to an end, he added, and that by mid-summer they will all die off becoming food for the birds.

Although they will be emerging, siinging, and mating en masse, these insects pose no physical threat to humans. They do noy migrate in swarms creating clouds of biblical proportion that will blot out the sun; as locusts do. They do not bite, nor will they attack, and according to Jentsch, the only real danger is caused by individuals who overreact and take inappropriate action to eradicate them.

He said the most significant health risk is created when individuals douse their home and property with insecticides exposing themselves, their families, and their pets to unnecessarily high levels of poison.

The most immediate cause for concern is amongst commercial agriculturalists.

According to Jentsch, “When they do attach themselves onto roots of trees they do reduce the vigor of the tree, sometimes they reduce the overall growth, and if it’s a fruit tree like apple it will reduce the quality of the fruit, the size, the number of fruit, the type of flowering that it goes through and so controlling these insects on fruit trees is fairly important for agriculturalists.”

Jentsch says the only real threat to people could be from pesticide overkill. He does say they can be harmful to fruit trees.

As he explained the potential for agricultural injury Jentsch spoke in detail about how the adult female cicada deposits its eggs in first and second year wood significantly compromising the structural integrity of the tree. He said the process of depositing eggs causes unnecessary stress on the tree and fruit bearing branches break under the weight of developing crops.

If action is not taken to control these populations fruit crops will be lost, he said.

There are insecticides specific for this species of cicada and growers will have to implement them during the period of emergence up until their eggs are laid. 

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