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YARD AND GARDEN: If you see a cicada, don't panic!

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This week, Master Gardener Juanita Sherwood shares thoughts and information about Brood X, 17-year cicadas scheduled to emerge soon.

I remember my Kentucky uncle and his family visiting one summer when I was a kid, and our community was hosting cicadas. We had two big elm trees in our front yard which were loaded with them. My dad walked by a low hanging branch, brushed against it (accidentally on purpose, maybe?), causing a huge swarm of them to fly away. I can still picture my Kentucky girl cousin running around in the yard screaming.

People at that time often referred to cicadas as locusts preceded by (“13” or) “17 year.” They are not locusts. Look it up if you want finer details, but a locust profile is more like that of a grasshopper than a huge fly. Besides appearance, another difference between locusts and cicadas is how they treat vegetation. Locusts might consume some of it whereas cicadas don’t.

That’s not to say that plants aren’t immune to the effects of cicadas. Trees are the most vulnerable. The females cut a small slit in smaller branches to lay their eggs. When they hatch, they drop down and burrow into the soil, and later emerge in (13 or) 17 years, grow into adults, and start the cycle all over again.

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In some circles, cicadas are known as nature’s pruners because the slits cut into those small branches for egg laying often cause the branch to die beyond the slit. The wind will then knock those pieces of dead branches onto the ground, thus “pruning” trees. Most gardeners prefer pruning at the hands of humans, not from the back ends of cicadas. Cicadas don’t necessarily choose egg laying spots where a tree might need pruning, after all.

Young trees and some shrubs are particularly vulnerable to cicada “pruning.” If you have some young trees that are important to you, you might purchase a net to place over the tree while cicadas are visiting. I have noted a few young trees already tightly covered here in Charleston.

Another complaint about cicadas, besides the females sawing into branches to accommodate egg laying, is the noise they make. Only the males “sing” to attract females to mate. Their mass volume can be quite loud. Think what this might do to our ears and minds if it went on all summer, year after year. Maybe that 13- or 17-year interlude is a good thing. A little bit occasionally is doable to accommodate nature, though, right?

An additional concern is animals eating them. They do contain protein. If ingested by the family dog, it is recommended that you try to limit the amount they eat. Too much cicada protein could cause a doggy digestive upset or even a weight gain. Birds and a few other animals also eat cicadas, even humans in some instances. No, thanks, I’ll pass on that— not too much of a risk taker when it comes to unique foods!

While most of Illinois is not on the early maps showing cicada emergence for 2021, Indiana is. I doubt that cicadas read maps, and since we here in and around Coles County are quite close to our eastern neighbor, seeing some of the predicted 17-year ones emerge in our communities is likely. Or, if you happen to travel east….

If you do see them, don’t panic. They won’t sting or bite you or eat your flowers or vegetables that you have worked so hard on. Don’t let them scare you—hang tight and they will soon disappear.

There has been some concern that Brood X will not show up in some places anymore. Why is this a concern? Scientists fear this is yet another indication that our planet is desperately needing attention to pollution, global warming, overuse of insecticides, and human encroachment into nature’s settings, causing nature to change irrevocably.

If you want to put cicada emergence into perspective, add (13 or) 17 years to your age. Think about where this will put you and yours in the lifespan of the 17 year cicadas: your dog and/or cat probably won’t be alive, a human baby born this year will be a teenager, human adults likely will move from one age group to another (such as from young to middle age), you will likely trade cars at least 3-4 times (or more or less), many more vehicles will likely be all electric, we will experience at least 4 more presidential elections, inventions that haven’t been thought of yet will become necessary, maybe Charleston and Mattoon will become one city….

Kind of unsettling, isn’t it?

If you have questions about your garden or landscape, contact a master gardener at the University of Illinois Extension office in Mattoon at 217-345-7034.

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Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.


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