Garden Detective

Jessica Damiano's award-winning garden blog gets to the root of things.


Brood II cicadas on the way; protect new trees and pets

Red-eyed cicadas appear in Annandale, Va. (May 21,

Red-eyed cicadas appear in Annandale, Va. (May 21, 2004) (Credit: AP)

Ever notice how most years, you only see a few cicadas, and you don't hear them chirping all that much? And then other years you find their discarded exoskeletons on everything from gas grills and swing sets to front doors and mailboxes? Ever notice how those are the years when it sounds like an Alfred Hitchcock movie outside your window every night around Memorial Day?

That's because after cicadas lay their eggs, their offspring take 17 years to mature and emerge from their underground homes. Once they finally see the light of day, the males chirp their mating calls like crazy, do the nasty and then die within weeks, leaving behind another batch of buried eggs that will make its presence known 17 years from now. The reason some years are worse (or more exciting, depending on your perspective) than others is because some broods are bigger than others. To determine what this year's brood will be like, we had to trace back to 1996 and, yes, it was a doozy.

And this year's brood -- Brood II -- is going to emerge in New York (and along most of the Eastern seaboard) any day now, and their numbers could be in the billions.

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Though they look like scary, nasty, prehistoric beings out for blood, cicadas are completely harmless. They look like they might bite or sting, but they do neither.

The problem is that because of their sheer numbers, they can wreak havoc on trees and shrubs, as locusts can. So if you just planted any young trees, you should consider protecting them with netting until around July 4.

Another problem is specific to pet owners: Dogs tend to enjoy catching them. And when they catch them, they typically eat them, which can be harmful, according to veterinarian Brian Collins of the Cornell University Hospital for Animals. “Discourage your dog and cat from ingesting cicadas," he warns. “As tempting as bugs may be, the outer skeleton of the cicada contains a tough material called chitin that is problematic when eaten in large quantities. Chitin is also found in lobster shells. If your dog or cat eats cicadas, it is akin to you eating a lobster shell. If enough are consumed, your companion animal may experience vomiting or constipation and require a visit to the veterinarian.”

It's a fairly short-term thing: In about 4 to 6 weeks, they'll be a distant memory, with their eggs safely tucked into the ground for posterity, which we'll be all too well aware of around this time of year in 2030.

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