I read in my local paper yesterday that it’s time for another emergence of the 13-year periodical cicada common to my region — North and South Carolina. The last emergence of this species was 1998. I remember it well. I thought extra-terrestrials had landed their spaceships just out of sight and did not turn off their engines. I had never before heard such a high, loud, continuous hum.
I could hear it in the house with the windows shut tight. To my ears, the sound was almost as bad as if someone were perpetually scratching fingernails on an ancient slate blackboard. Periodical cicada calls are not remotely similar to the lazy thrumming of our annual cicadas — their song just vibrates humid late-summer air, lulling sticky bodies into uneasy slumber. The periodical cicada calls are different; they penetrate your brain and jangle your nerves. And then the bugs appear — everywhere.
I had never seen so many of one kind of insect at one time in my life. They covered every bush, the steps of my house, the fence. My young lab mix was delighted, dancing and leaping as she snapped up as many of the slow-moving cicadas as she could. Fortunately, the cicadas aren’t poisonous, but the vet still encouraged us to lock the dog inside the house until the cicadas dispersed a bit more into the environment.
If you live in a suburb without much forest cover — or a city — you probably won’t hear these short-lived sonic disrupters. If you live in North or South Carolina, I encourage you to take a trip to the countryside in late April/ early May, when the cicadas are predicted to emerge. You will never hear anything like the sound of gazillions of these red-eyed insects humming their love calls.
But if you live in or near forests that have remained undisturbed for the past 13 years, prepare yourself. Gardeners may want to take preventive measures to protect any young trees or shrubs with relatively small stems. Adult females lay their eggs in these thin branches. The larvae soon emerge, drop to the ground, and dig in for another 13-year development cycle. In my yard thirteen years ago, a young dogwood didn’t survive the massive egg-hole drilling that the periodic cicadas subjected it to. Branches broke and dropped, leaving a sad, injured tree that I eventually removed.
This time around, I’ve got many more shrubs and young trees with branches likely to be deemed ideal by the female cicadas. When I hear the high-pitched hum begin, I’ll be covering many of these smaller woody plants with a spun garden fabric that will deny access to these insects. The good news is that the entire life cycle only takes four to six weeks.
This late spring, my landscape will likely be haunted by high hums and white-fabric-covered shrubs. At least I know the haunting will be temporary, and won’t return for another thirteen years.