We hate to bug you, but it’s almost time for the return of magicicada septemdecim — 17-year cicadas — to Indiana County and the vicinity.
“Seventeen-year cicadas are found in most areas of Indiana County, but in pockets of higher concentrations in some places,” said Indiana County Parks & Trails Director Ed Patterson. “They are typically found throughout our county parks. At Blue Spruce Park this year’s emergence will be the third one I have experienced in my time here.”
After sightings recorded in 1985 and 2002, the 17-year variety of cicadas may be expected beginning in mid-May and lasting through late June.
“Most of our park visitors probably find them annoying, even gross, but I tell people they should appreciate their emergence, every 17 years like clockwork,” Patterson said.
“Periodical cicadas emerge in abundance and crawl onto trees, shrubs and man-made structures like porches, houses and picnic tables,” said Dr. Ellen H. Yerger, assistant professor of biology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
“They call to each other, which makes some noise,” Yerger said. “They have orange eyes and orange wing veins, and are about an inch long, so some people think they look strange and are bothered by the noise, appearance and abundance. But most people describe to me their fascination with these unusual insects that live underneath us for 17 years, unobtrusively sipping some nutrients from tree roots, and then, with incredible synchrony and timing, emerge in a couple-week span.”
According to the Department of Entomology in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, the cicada is native to North America and is the longest-lived insect on the continent.
There are six species of periodical cicadas, all in the eastern United States. Three have a 17-year cycle, mainly in northern areas, while three have a 13-year cycle, mainly in the South.
In Pennsylvania, according to the Penn State experts, separate populations also known as broods are present during eight different years in different geographic ranges in the state.
“Indiana County is located in the Brood VIII region and 2019 is our year for an emergence,” Patterson said.
South of the Conemaugh and Kiskiminetas rivers, Westmoreland County is in four brood regions, Brood V (with Fayette, Greene, Somerset and Washington counties) that last emerged in 2016; Brood VI (with seven southeastern counties) that last emerged in 2017; Brood VII (with Allegheny, Butler and Washington counties) that last emerged in 2018; and Brood VIII.
Indiana and Westmoreland counties share the Brood VIII cicadas with Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Clarion, Crawford, Fayette, Forest, Huntingdon, Lawrence, Mercer, Venango and Washington counties.
The Penn State experts say adult periodical cicadas are about one and a half inches long and have eyes and wing veins that are reddish orange.
There also are larger cicadas that don’t spend all those years underground. The Penn State experts say dog-day cicadas, or tibicens, are mostly large, blackish insects usually with greenish wing veins and appear every year from mid-July through mid-September.
Cicadas have been observed since colonial times.
Penn State experts said early American colonists had never seen cicadas before their first appearance some 300 years ago. While they were familiar with the biblical story of locust plagues in Egypt, they weren’t sure what to make of an insect that suddenly could appear by the millions, and which even prompted native Americans to think it was a plague with an evil significance.
However, the Penn State experts say, cicadas are not locusts, a term correctly applied only to certain species of grasshoppers.
Still, it prompted reports like this one in 1901 from the old Indiana Progress: “The case of mounted insects presented to the Normal school some time ago by Mr. R.W. Wehrle, the optician of town, has been greatly admired and pronounced one of the most extensive collections of locusts ever exhibited in this part of the state.”
“The old newspapers always referred to them as locusts,” Patterson said. “R.W. Wehrle, our county’s greatest naturalist, recorded their emergence. I’ve been working on a biography of R.W. Wehrle so I’m not surprised he was mentioned in the papers when they occurred here back in his day. The papers often wrote about R.W. Wehrle’s various outings and sightings and sought him out for his knowledge of nature.”
The Indiana Progress report concluded, “Mr. Wehrle was employed for a period of one year in making the collection and completing the case.”
A 1916 clipping from the old Indiana Weekly Messenger included the warning of “the venerable Samuel Ruff, of Greensburg, who has seen with his own eyes five scourges of locusts in Westmoreland County,” and who predicted “that the pests will be with us again” in 1917.
“The locusts seem to pick out the best trees, those in fullest bloom of leaves and blossoms and lay their eggs,” said Ruff, then 91. “A tree once stung by locusts never recovers until a succeeding visit of the pests, when it again may be attached.”
Wehrle, for whom a breed of salamander found in 1911 in Indiana County is named, also predicted the 1917 emergence in an article for the Weekly Messenger.
After an emergence, Yerger said, “the females lay their eggs in twigs of trees, about one foot from the tip, using their ovipositor to make a slit. The leaves on that twig die from the slit to the branch tip, so when you look at some trees, you can see dead twigs for the last foot of the branch. This is called ‘flagging.’”
And, the IUP professor said, this is the only damage cicadas cause.
“Once the eggs hatch, the larvae drop to the ground, bury into the soil, find tree roots to feed on, and start the life cycle anew,” Yerger said.
Or so observers hope.
“Periodical cicada populations are declining and some local populations have gone extinct,” the IUP professor said. “If homeowners can just enjoy the novelty and leave them alone, we’ll keep one more wonder of our world alive for another 17-year generation.”
More recent sightings chronicled at the www.magicicada.org website include 1985 events off Route 119 in the Home area of Rayne Township, along Alternate Route 66 in the Dime area south of Crooked Creek in Armstrong County and off Route 66 north of New Bethlehem in Porter Township, Clarion County.
Sightings documented in 2002 include one just west of Keystone State Park in Unity Township, Westmoreland County.
Those who don’t want to enjoy the novelty can reach for the spray can.
“Deciduous shrubs, fruit, nut, and shade trees may be protected with registered formulations of insecticides,” according to the Penn State Department of Entomology website.
“The first application should be made prior to egg laying; this is approximately 7-10 days after the male periodical cicadas start their singing,” the website continued. “Additional applications may be necessary. Apply all control materials according to label directions. Always refer to individual insecticide labels for host plant clearance information.”
Other suggestions for controlling cicadas come from Penn State Extension:
• Delay planting to avoid cicada emergence and postpone until summer the winter pruning of trees less than four years old. Delayed pruning would decrease the probability of damage to incipient scaffold limbs and give the grower a chance to remove damaged wood after cicadas have finished laying eggs. Summer pruning and the removal of trimmings from the orchard, if done within the 4 to 6 week period after eggs are laid but before nymphs fall to the ground, would allow the grower to prevent many cicadas from feeding on tree roots for the next 17 years.
• Protect trees (especially young trees) from damage caused by egg laying by one of two strategies, depending primarily on the size of the orchard. Trees in small orchards or backyards can be protected mechanically by enclosing them in netting or some other kind of cloth with a mesh size no larger than about a quarter-inch for the duration of the egg-laying period.
Penn State Extension agents say such netting should be placed on trees when the first male singing is heard and removed after adult activity has stopped, and all branches less than half an inch in diameter should be protected.
Otherwise, the novelty can be enjoyed in various ways.
“My cat liked to play with them,” Yerger said. “When you pick them up, they make even more noise, but they don’t bite and are harmless. Some restaurants make special recipes with them. I have an old cicada pie recipe but I’ve never made it.”
A 2005 NPR report said newly hatched cicadas, called tenerals, are considered best for eating because their shells have not hardened.
“It is best to collect these in the very early hours of the morning, just after they have emerged but before they have time to climb up out (of) reach,” according to the public radio report. “The best way to do this is to simply go outside with a brown paper bag and start scooping them in. You can cook with them immediately, or refrigerate them (they will remain alive but will mature much more slowly) or freeze them.”
The network’s website offered recipes for soft-shelled cicadas (think crabs), “el chirper tacos” (fried, chopped then cooked further with onions, chilies and tomato) and cicada pie baked with rhubarb.
The Penn State Department of Entomology said humans aren’t the only creatures invited to participate in “a time of feasting for a surprising array of creatures.” Birds such as grackles and crows; fish who “literally gorge themselves on adult cicadas when they are abundant in trees and shrubs along a stream”; rodents, reptiles and other insects; and even dogs and cats have been known to join in the feast.