Brood XIX is coming! Be Not Afraid!

By Kathy Conner Cornell VCE Southside Master Gardener This is the year of the return on the 13-year periodical cicadas, Brood XIX, known as the Great Southern Brood. In Southside, the bulk of this brood will be in Halifax Brunswick Counties. Eric Day, Virginia Tech Entomologist, says that he expects spotty overflow to Mecklenburg County. You would be doing a real service, if you do see cicadas in Mecklenburg County, to email us at and let us know where so we can keep Eric posted. If you can remember cicada emergence in the past, it was loud. That is about the worst of it all – the noise. The cicadas will not sting or bite you. If one lands on you, it was just coincidence.
Cicadas are scary looking with those red eyes but are harmless to humans. If they land on you, it is the freak factor that is chilling. They cannot bite or sting. The colonists first encountered the cicadas in Massachusetts. They reminded them of the Biblical plagues so called them locusts. Locusts chew leaves, fly in swarms and are a type of grasshopper. Cicadas do not chew leaves or fly in swarms. They are in the Magicicada species. The cicada life cycle is fascinating. To prepare for emergence, the mature nymphs build a tunnel type opening, they may include a chimney-like top. On the night they emerge, in mid-May, the nymphs will burrow out of their tunnel and alight on some nearby vegetation and complete their last molt. They have an incomplete lifecycle which means the nymphs look similar to adults. When they molt, or shed the exoskeleton, the life cycle is complete. The adults go on the hunt for a mate. The cicadas may seem to emerge all at once in a defense mechanism that scientists call predator-satiation. This means, that there is a large enough population so that if preditation does occur, there will be enough cicadas left to carry out the mission of successful breeding. It is the need to find a mate that causes the males to make their “singing” and with such a large population, that can be quite loud. Per University of Maryland Extension “Male cicadas contract muscles to vibrate drumhead-like tymbal organs on their abdomen. This sound resonates and is amplified by hollow cavities inside of their bodies. Different species of cicada produce different songs.” The females are capable of laying 400 eggs. To do this, the female will slice into an area on a small tree branch with her ovipositor, or egg laying apparatus, and deposit an egg. She may lay up to several dozen eggs on one branch before moving to another. This egg laying is usually done on branches the size of a pencil. This will cause little harm to established trees. Five to seven weeks after the egg is laid, the nymphs emerge and drop to the ground to burrow into the soil and feed on plant roots for the next thirteen years. Why do the cicadas do this? I’d like to give you an answer but there is no scientifically determined reason for this except it is what they do. There is also no definitive reason as to how they know when to emerge. If you are planning to plant some young trees, you should wait until fall. This is the best time to plant woodies so they get a good root system established before leafing out in the spring. Insecticides have little value so don’t waste your time and money. If you do have small trees, you might consider covering the branches with netting so the females cannot get close enough to slice into the branches. USDA Department of Forestry suggests “covering vulnerable trees and shrubs with an agricultural netting of ¼-inch mesh or less”. This allows air and water flow and will keep the females away from the branches. Before securing the netting, be sure there are no birds or insects on the trees and shrubs. Admittedly, cicadas are scary looking with those big red eyes. However, they won’t harm you or your landscape or vegetable garden. If the noise gets overwhelming, be glad you aren’t in Illinois. Some areas are having two or more different broods emerge this summer at the same time. By the Fourth of July, the noise should be over. Cicadas are tasty bird food treats. It has been studied that birds and new hatchlings are hardier because of the extra protein rich cicadas. If your dog wolves down a couple, there will be no negative effect unless it gobbles too many at once. Humans are known to eat them and I found no shortage of recipes when I searched for ways to cook them. I am confident my husband will not surprise me with fried cicadas for dinner this summer.