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A bug’s (short) life

South Boston News / June 05, 2013
The invading army of cicadas is here.

Folks living in areas of Mecklenburg County — near Chase City, extending into Halifax and Charlotte counties and around Buggs Island Lake and Lake Gaston — will not be surprised to learn the news, inasmuch as they’ve been listening to the never-ending drone of cicadas for the past couple of weeks as the bugs emerge from their 17-year naps.

With their bulging orange eyes, hard black bodies and other-worldly buzzing hum, cicadas may evoke thoughts of Biblical plagues. Yet these creatures are relatively harmless to both plants and humans and their visits are short-lived, usually lasting only 4-6 weeks from April through May. This year’s cold rainy spring delayed their arrival, said Eric Day, manager of the insect identification lab at Virginia Tech.

By the end of June, most, if not all, of the cicadas will have returned to their underground bedrooms.

This year, people are witnessing the “Brood II” group’s emergence, which only happens every 17 years. However, people who are convinced they saw cicadas a couple years ago are not mistaken, Day explained. There are several broods that emerge after 17 years, others come out after 13 years, and one brood emerges every year. This last group, called “Dog Days Cicadas,” generally show up every year in July and August.

Usually there is only one brood in a particular land area, Day said: “Those who saw the cicadas two years ago will most likely not experience the bugs this year.” However, if you are looking for the bugs, the bulk of their activity this year will be around the Piedmont region.

After emerging from their underground lairs, adult cicadas live for only two to four weeks. During this time, they shed their hard shells, unfurl their wings, and crawl up trees seeking out mates. Since they are more focused on reproduction, the bugs eat relatively little and do not cause any severe damage to plants.

In fact, Day said, unlike locusts, to which cicadas are often compared, the adults don’t eat leaves, which is good news to tobacco and soybean farmers in the area.

New young trees that do not have well-established root systems are most likely to succumb to cicada feeding, because the young nymphs feed off tree roots during their 17-year hiatus. Otherwise, Day said, the only sign the cicadas were even in the area is the occasional dead clump of leaves hanging from the smaller branches of mature trees, where the female burrowed in to lay her eggs.

Above ground, male cicadas sing to attract females using a drum-like structure on the side of the abdomen called a tymbal. The noise can get as loud as 90 decibels (the sound of a lawn mower engine).

After mating, females lay up to 400 eggs in small twigs. Upon hatching, the young cicadas fall to the ground where they burrow into the soil and suck on tree root sap for the next 17 years.

Despite the potential damage to saplings, Day said cicadas are mostly beneficial bugs: “They aerate the soil and feed the birds.”

Bug watchers, who eagerly await the arrival of the cicadas, are noticing a patchiness to this year’s swarm. One reason for this, said Day, could be the colder temperatures, but more likely the reasons has to day with man-made changes to the land. As farm land is developed and paved over, the cicada’s habitats are destroyed and the bugs die.

While the cicada swarm lasts, Day encourages everyone to enjoy this curiosity, which is unique to the eastern part of the United States.

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