Cicada Q&A

May 11, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance and Michael Stroh | Frank D. Roylance and Michael Stroh,Baltimore Sun Staff

The Sun's Frank D. Roylance and Michael Stroh answer your questions.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Because of the overwhelming number of inquiries from baltimoresun.com readers, The Sun's Frank Roylance has joined Michael Stroh in answering your questions about cicadas.

Betty, Baltimore: When will the cicadas surface? How long will they last?

Stroh: Some cicadas have already started to surface. By next week, some Marylanders will probably start hearing singing males. By July 1, they'll be gone -- except for billions of rotting cicada carcasses.

Jesse Elkins, Reisterstown: What do cicadas eat?

Stroh: Periodical cicada nymphs suckle on tree roots during their 13 or 17 years underground. Once they emerge, the adults can also tap into the tree to suck down its fluid, says naturalist John Zyla. But they're generally more concerned with looking for a mate than eating, he adds.

Eric Czajkowski, Parkton: What is the relationship between cicadas and locusts? Are they the same thing?

Stroh: Cicadas have no relation to locusts, which are technically a species of grasshopper.

Jesse Rodriguez, Austin, Texas: I read that cicadas carry bubonic plague. What can we do to avoid the Black Death?

Stroh: Fleas carried bubonic plague, not cicadas. While they may be big, ugly and uncoordinated, experts say that cicadas are also harmless.

Mary E. Windholtz, Cincinnati: Does anyone remember how bad they stink when they die? My whole yard smelled like raw hamburger when left out to sit in the sun.

Stroh: Yum! Like all living things, cicadas decompose when they die. The best thing to do is grab a rake and hold your nose.

TJ, Ashburn, Va.: Does the frozen ground affect them?

Stroh: Cicadas can survive freezing temperatures underground. But they only emerge when the soil is warm, typically a relatively toasty 64 degrees Fahrenheit.

John C. O'Conor, Ruxton: What's the best way to protect a small tree such as a two-year-old Japanese maple? Would you recommend a cheesecloth covering?

Stroh: Most experts recommend placing netting over the crown of the tree and tying it off at the bottom. The trick is to keep the cicadas out of the branches, where the females lay their eggs. An older tree can typically survive the trauma, but trees two years old or younger are more vulnerable.

Jed Faroe, Purcellville, Va.: Why do Cicadas appear exactly every 17 years? What keeps them on schedule? Do they ever appear sooner or later?

Stroh: The short answer is: Nobody knows. Some biologists speculate the periodical cicada's long life cycle evolved as a way to dodge predators. There's also some evidence that the insects might be keeping track of the years by monitoring chemicals circulating through the trees. But nobody knows the answer.

Mike, Columbia: Will the cicadas bother people in the infield for Preakness?

Stroh: It's unlikely. Cicadas usually only appear in places where there are lots of trees.

Kate, Maryland: Do they bite and aren't they going to hurt animals?

Stroh: Cicadas don't bite. And they don't hurt animals -- at least not intentionally. Dogs and cats love to munch on cicadas. And sometimes they eat so many they vomit.

Jackie Adams, Aberdeen: Are they really going to be so bad that they will be flying in my hair and landing on me?

Stroh: They might if you live in a place where lots of Brood X cicadas call home.

Kim Wu, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Is it true that cicadas cycle every 17 years? I remember growing up in Asia (Malaysia) and they come around every year.

Stroh: There are two general types of cicadas. Annual or "dog day" cicadas are the ones you can hear each year on late summer afternoons. They live all over the world. Periodical cicadas, on the other hand, only emerge every 13 or 17 years, depending on the species. Periodicals are only found in Eastern North America.

Matt, Baltimore: How long are cicadas?

Stroh: Adult cicadas are typically 1 to 2 inches long.

Michelle, Baltimore: Do you suggest the people stay at home from work or travel if they take mass transit?

Stroh: Cicadas should have no impact on commuters.

Hadassah Beck, Baltimore: I have only been in Baltimore for about 6 years and am deathly afraid of bugs in general. How bad does it truly get and how long will it really last?

Stroh: How bad it gets depends on where you live and how many trees you have around you. But take solace in this fact: The bugs don't last long. By July 1 or so they should all be dead.

Maria, Pikesville: Will my puppy get sick if she eats any? ?

Stroh: If she pigs out, she might, so you might want to keep your dog away from cicadas. Although vets say that even animals that do indulge aren't likely to die. It's more like a case of doggie indigestion.

Cathy, Louisville, Ky.: I am scared of the cicadas. Do they stay in the trees or swarm around you?

Stroh: Cicadas don't swarm in the sense that angry bees swarm. Cicadas are notoriously bad fliers and, like a drunk on the sidewalk, are more likely to bump into you by accident than with any kind of ill intent.

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