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Cicadas beginning to bug region

A cicada emerges from its exoskeleton after molting near Osterburg on Thursday. The inch-long creatures have surfaced again for the first time since 2004, making their presence known by their “clicking, rattling sound” and the numerous exoskeletons left behind after molting. Mirror photo by Holly Claycomb

Cicadas have surfaced again in central Pennsylvania, coming in the largest numbers since 2004.

The inch-long creatures time their emergence based on soil temperature, typically surfacing at 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Their emergence in large numbers is strategic according to Penn State University entomology expert Michael Skvarla.

“They mass emerge as a way to avoid predation,” Skvarla said. Despite this, he said, a cicadas’ lifespan is an ephemeral process.

“Males hang out about a week waiting to mate,” Skvarla said. “Females lay eggs, then everybody dies.”

Adult cicadas, Skvarla said, are only above ground for a few weeks.

Cicadas gather on a plant in Osterburg. The insects, which stay underground until they develop fully as adults, are returning aboveground after 17 years. Mirror photo by Holly Claycomb

An avid angler, Galen Snyder said he has used cicadas as bait.

“The second they hit the water, you have trout on like crazy,” he said.

Snyder said he hasn’t seen any cicadas yet, but that he’s “starting to hear them” and that they are making a “rattling, clicking sound.”

The insects are making their presence known in Bedford County, too. Juniata Audubon Society member and retired biology teacher Laura Jackson, who lives near Everett, said she began seeing cicadas on her property Wednesday. She said she “really saw a lot” Thursday.

“As we walk around the yard and look in the woods, we see hot spots where there might be 30 to 50 cicadas in front of us,” Jackson said. “We can see the skin where they have shed and it’s interesting because they’re smaller than what we thought, so I’m actually in the process of trying to figure out what species it is.”

Cicadas have a short life cycle and their emergence should be over by July. Mirror photo by Holly Claycomb

Jackson said she uses iNaturalist, a free app that allows users to take pictures of and identify wild animals.

“I have a project set up for our property where I can photograph and identify species and I thought it would be neat to add cicadas to the list,” she said.

Learning about all forms of life, from mammals to insects has been Jackson’s passion for decades. She’s a retired biology teacher who has taught at the middle and high school levels as well as at the Alleghany College of Maryland.

“It’s pretty neat,” Jackson said. “(My husband and I) have a lot of birds (on our property) and I really enjoy insects. I’ve been trying to photograph a lot of the bees and butterflies and birds. We both love nature photography and we do really care a lot about wildlife.”

Because cicadas can damage trees, people sometimes use pesticides to control them, something experts discourage.

“Female cicadas lay eggs in tree branches one-fourth to three-fourths of an inch in diameter by cutting slits in the branches,” Skvarla said. “This can damage the trees when so many cicadas are present.”

Still, that damage is minimal in the grand scheme of things, Skvarla said.

“Large, healthy trees are able to withstand this damage without long-term health impacts,” he said. “The one time cicadas may be an issue is with small, recently transplanted trees, as such trees are already really stressed and have a majority of branches in the preferred size range.”

Pesticides aren’t even effective at controlling the creatures’ population, Skvarla said.

“The cicadas will be so abundant that even if you spray chemicals to kill the cicadas on your property, more cicadas will move in from your neighbors,” Skvarla said. “In some places there will be literally millions of cicadas per acre. You’d have to continually apply pesticides for the two to three weeks the cicadas are present, but even then, pesticides wouldn’t be worth the cost of applying because cicadas aren’t dangerous.”

One of the risks of pesticide use as a means to control cicadas is poisoning other animals. Pets and wildlife alike enjoy snacking on the insects, and they could become sick from eating ones exposed to the chemicals, according to Saint Francis University entomology expert Lane Loya.

“Potential toxicity of the pesticides to pets, wildlife and people would increase with repeated spraying,” Loya said. “Dogs and cats find these cicadas irresistible. I know my cat couldn’t stop eating them during the outbreak 17 years ago.”

Ultimately, Loya said, cicadas are benign creatures that actually serve a purpose.

“I know a lot of people see these cicadas as a nuisance, but other than a potential risk to small trees, they really are harmless, and actually benefit the environment,” Loya said. “They don’t bite or sting, aren’t toxic to pets if eaten, and don’t damage homes. Plus, they are a natural food source for wildlife — birds, mammals, fish and amphibians all eat them — and the dead bodies of the ones not eaten serve as a natural fertilizer when they’re gone. These beneficial bugs will only be here for a short time and really pose no serious threat to homeowners.”

“Cicadas might be annoying to people,” Jackson said, “but their life cycle will be over by July, so it’s nothing we have to put up with for very long.

“It’s really kind of a neat phenomenon that insects have evolved, like the cicada, to emerge after 17 years in darkness — that so many can time their emergence to come out at the same time.”

Mirror Staff Writer Andrew Mollenauer is at 814-946-7428.

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