Hysteria over the cicada emergence of 2004 is reaching biblical proportions

Charlie Metz
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

The hysteria over the cicada emergence of 2004 is reaching biblical proportions, to quote some of the news accounts. So far hundreds of questions have come in to the Extension office concerning the cicadas. Many of the calls are from citizens who have been convinced that aliens are about to invade our placid way of life. But a news report I saw last night convinced me to write an article to set the record straight.

The reporter went to great lengths to outline a phenomenon of irrational fear of cicadas. He even interviewed a lady who is so scared of the impending cicada outbreak that she won't venture outside for fear she will be gotten by these terrible bugs. The story went on to show how she was being treated to overcome this fear by facing it directly; you know, the usual stuff.

Entomophobia, or fear of insects, is a real psychiatric condition usually brought on by terrifying incidents involving insects, usually in one's childhood. It includes avoidance of insects at all costs. Cicadaphobia, is a condition brought on every 17 years when the periodic cicada emerges and is found everywhere. People with this condition are paralyzed during 6 week periods at measurable intervals in their lifetime. These people hungrily read all news accounts written by unqualified reporters, watch all television reports that sensationalize the cicada outbreak, and listen to in-laws who know everything. A slowly building phobia results in a fear-driven withdrawal from society during these invasions.

Fortunately there is help. It comes in the form of information. I am convinced that a person pretreated with information has less chance to develop cicadaphobia than others less informed. The more you know about cicadas the less you will fear them and actually come to appreciate this occasional event.

The cicadas are emerging everywhere and there is nothing we can do about it. They are coming out now because somewhere in ancient history they adapted to conditions that favored their occasional appearance in order to survive. They will come out in the trillions over the Mid-Atlantic region. They can number up to a million per acre. Knowing these numbers is enough to strike fear into most normal hearts. Understanding what they are doing is actually more important to know.

Cicadas come up every 17 years for one purpose. That is to reproduce. Male cicadas vibrate an organ called a tymbal with a 90 decibel sound. They do this to attract a female to come to them. (Humans have it all wrong). By the way, 90 decibels exceeds OSHA noise standards, but since the government takes so long to pass legislation, it could be 17 more years before the law hits the books.

The sound of millions of cicada males serenading possible mates can be quite annoying, but it is surely nothing to fear. Weddings should go on. Just don't expect video recorders to filter out the noise. Say the vows loudly. Swimming pools have skimming filters, so empty them regularly. Dead cicada bodies will pile up on patios and decks, so just sweep them up and get rid of them.

If you live in a neighborhood that is less than 17 years old, you may not see any cicadas. Because they live underground for 17 years, any disturbing of the soil is enough to rid the area of cicada nymphs. Cutting down trees removes the roots the cicadas feed on for this long period of time. If you live on previously farmed ground the cicadas will be rarer on your place. If you live in a neighborhood with few large trees you will have only few of the cicadas this year.

Damage from cicadas is caused by their egg laying method. Cicada females have an organ called an ovipositor. This ovipositor is used to pierce twigs about the thickness of a pencil, where she lays a few dozen eggs. Sometimes this action causes the end of that branch to die. On large trees these branch tips stand out against the dark green of the rest of the tree. A good windy thunderstorm will eventually bring these dead branch ends to the ground, ending the cycle of cicada worries. I anticipate this pruning will actually benefit homeowners with large trees who couldn't hire a tree service to do the same thing.

This is not to say they don't cause measurable damage. Since they lay eggs on small branches, it goes without saying that small trees are at risk. Too many cicadas on a small tree could seriously damage that tree. A netting over that tree could keep these insects away. However, at this time it is very difficult to locate a supplier. If all else fails, go out to the tree a couple of times a day and shake the cicadas off. This could slow down any possible damage.

P.S. Cicadaphobia is a word I made up.

Read other articles about controlling insects & garden pests

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