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Return of the 17-Year Locust

By Staff | Apr 20, 2016

In the upcoming month of May, when the ground temperature rises above 64 degrees Fahrenheit, the Periodic Cicadas will return. In the trees, we will begin to hear the first sounds of the male cicadas calling to a mate. At first it will be just a few of the small insects calling. But, within a few weeks, the trees will be filled with uncountable numbers of the red eyed creatures. The sound will have become so loud and sharp it will be near impossible not to hear their call for love.

Every seventeen years a phenomena of nature reoccurs. As if by some magic alarm clock from beneath the grass in our yards, the Periodic Cicadas will return. Although most people call them locust, they are really cicadas. The insects are a noise nuisance and emerge by the millions in late spring, early summer. The only real danger from the small creatures is to the trees, fruit trees in particular.

After a mate has been found, and love takes place in the high trees, the female finds the perfect tree branch and lays her eggs. She cuts the branch and then injects her eggs into the soft interior of a tree. A short time later she dies and falls to the ground. As the infestation continues, the bodies of thousands of insects can been found below the trees where they laid their eggs. After a while the eggs kill the branch, which then falls from the tree on to the ground below. Time passes, and the eggs eventually fall from the dead branch and end up on the ground where they hatch and burrow into the earth. That is until Mother Nature’s alarm calls them to emerge and starts the cycle all over again.

The emergence of the cicada is one of the wonders of nature. What tells the nymph, that may live as far as eight feet underground, it is time to return to the surface? We think of bugs as having a short life and little intelligence, yet this small insect lives below our feet for seventeen years and then on cue they return to fulfill their destiny.

Normally, the cicada songs are not to be heard until late summer. Some call them the bringers of Dog Days. When I hear the late summer song coming from the trees I always think of Town and Country Days. They both return around the same time.

The late summer cicada is larger and returns each August. They return not in the numbers like we will see in a month or so. In fact, to see one in a normal year is rare. They live high in the trees and sing to find a mate. The face of the annual locust reminds me of the front grille on a 1937 Ford. I know it sounds strange, but if you find a locust look it directly in the face. I’ll bet you see the resemblance too.

The cicada that will emerge in our local area are known in scientific terms as Brood 5. The species are smaller than the annual cicada and have furious red eyes. If a horror movie would enlarge them and have them swoop down on New York, it would make a great creature movie, the kind they used to make back in the fifties. They once made movies with tarantulas, ants, rabbits and praying mantis. I bet a red-eyed locust would have sent the young girls into the protective arms of their boyfriends. They don’t make movies like that anymore. Or maybe, they could make a movie where the Avengers take on the Attack of the Locust People. I’d pay to see that.

Both the annual and the periodic cicada have the same life cycle – egg, nymph and adult. And both spend much of their life underground feeding off the roots of trees. Annual cicadas are few and far between feeding below the ground surface. But, millions of the periodic nymph rise up from deep underground to feed on tree roots each 17 year cycle. I tend to think they also bring something else with them: moles.

Have you noticed over the last couple of summers how the mole population has increased? If your yard is like mine it looks like there is an underground highway system running just below the surface. Mounds of dirt are pushed up making it look like small volcanoes sprouted up overnight. Rake the dirt away and next morning they return.

Moles feed on earthworms, grubs and I believe cicada nymphs. The population boomed over the last couple of years as the cicadas are returning to the surface. If I am right, next year the mole population in my yard should drop dramatically.

If you plant young trees, this may not be the year to do it. If you do, cover them with netting to prevent damage from the locust. And if you did not prune your trees last winter, don’t worry about it. Mother Nature is about to send her natural pruners to help you out this year. Fruit trees seem to be a favorite of the cicadas to lay their eggs. Good for the cicadas, bad for fruit trees. The limbs where the young fruit will be growing will in all likelihood be damaged by the Red Eyed Locust.

In 1965, I remember the first time I saw the locust return. The thing I remember the most – it was a great year for fishing. The locust fell into the creek by the thousands and the fish ate them by the thousands. After a month, when the feast ended, the fish were still looking for an easy meal on the surface. A jitterbug this summer will catch lots of fish; it did in 1965.

The next time I remember the locusts was in 1982. I was in my yard looking for night crawlers. I heard something odd coming from the trees near my house. As I turned the light onto the trees the bark seemed to be moving. The trees were alive with thousands of locust coming up from the ground. There were so many, they made a scratching sound as they climbed the trees.

In 1999 when they returned, I remember the overpowering sound as I walked on our farm. The call of the insects was so loud it blocked every other sound in the woods. In fact it was so loud it caused discomfort to my ears.

I gathered most of the information for this story from Wetzel County’s West Virginia University Extension office. It is a good place to ask questions about growing gardens or pest control. When they sent me the information they included something I did not know. Cicadas are good to eat. They can be barbecued, boiled, baked or fried. During emergent years, it is common to see periodic cicadas incorporated into the ingredients of various foods, such as salads, burgers or ice cream. If catching cicadas to eat, it is best to collect them at night as they emerge from the ground and before their exoskeletons harden; they will be whitish in color. Well, at least it is a good thing to know if you are ever lost in the woods during a 17 year cicada hatch.

I am looking forward to the locust return this summer. I know they will damage trees and fill the air with ear piercing noise. But, somehow I enjoy seeing a wonder of nature take place one more time in my life. Who knows, in 2033 when they return, my hearing aids may block the sound of nature as I listen Through the Lens.