Feature, Local News

Cicada party: Welcome to H-F, Brood XIII

In 2007, millions and millions of periodic cicadas emerged from the ground, sang their songs, found their mates, deposited their eggs and died.

Their kids are back.

Early emerging members of Brood XIII, the cicada group that inhabits northern Illinois, have already started peeping out of their burrows, and by mid-May, the rest of the gang will arrive. Millions upon millions of cicadas will make their journey to visit above ground neighbors. Us.

The event will be kind of like a big bug block party that will cover half the state. They will again sing their songs, do their mating dances, have their fun, deposit their eggs and die.

At a sale of cicada T-shirts and totes at Homewood village hall on April 20, several residents waiting in line recalled previous emergences and know what to expect.

“I remember they were everywhere,” Katie Kerwin said. “They would even land on my hair when I went outside. They would be all over the sidewalk, all over the trees.”

Denice Banton had just moved to Homewood from Chicago when the 2007 emergence occurred. She said she didn’t really like the bugs, but the weird natural event was memorable.

“It was crazy. Walking on them was really crunchy,” she said. “I remember the seagulls, a lot of them coming in and eating them. It was a wonderful experience.”

At Homewood village hall on April 20, Events Manager Marla Youngblood, left, Communications & Engagement Specialist Antonia Steinmiller and Trustee Allisa Opyd work to fulfill orders for cicada T-shirts and totebags. The line of customers went from the board room, down the hall and out the door. (Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)
At Homewood village hall on April 20, Events Manager Marla Youngblood, left, Communications & Engagement Specialist Antonia Steinmiller and Trustee Allisa Opyd work to fulfill orders for cicada T-shirts and totebags. The line of customers went from the board room, down the hall and out the door. (Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)

What to expect

What should everyone do to prepare for the emergence of so many large insects this spring?

First, don’t panic.

That’s the advice of local arborists and an area entomologist who are familiar with the periodical cicadas.
At the Homewood Tree Committee’s monthly Green Thumb Saturdays meeting on April 13, Allen Lawrance, associate curator of entomology for the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, gave an introduction to periodical cicada behavior.

He said cicadas emerge when the soil temperature reaches 64 degrees, and their first mission is to find a nearby vertical surface to climb in order to shed their skins. They don’t fly far, not usually more than 50 yards from where they emerge.

“They’re not gonna be flying around too much. They’re not gonna be like slamming into your buildings. They’re not gonna be slamming into your car window,” he said. “They’re really just sort of chilling near the trees close to where they emerge.”

After the adults have emerged from the ground and shed their skins, the males will start to sing. Lawrance said they are not as loud as the annual “dog days” cicadas that are active in late summer, but there are so many periodical cicadas — possibly as many as 1.5 million per acre — that their chorus often will sound much louder.

He stressed that people need not fear encounters with cicadas. Their mouths might look intimidating, he said, but they do not bite or sting humans or pets.

“They’re vegetarian. They’re only gonna feed on plants,” he said.

In fact, periodical cicadas have no real defense mechanisms, he said.

Young trees at Willow School in Homewood are wrapped in mesh fabric to protect them from periodical cicadas. (Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)
Young trees at Willow School in Homewood are wrapped in mesh fabric to protect them from periodical cicadas. (Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)

“They’re not skittish. They don’t really care. You can walk right up to them and pick them up,” he said. “Their life strategy is that there are so many that emerge that if everything that eats these cicadas does, they’ll be full, they’ll be happy. And there’s still like billions of cicadas left.”

The emergence this year is a rare convergence of two neighboring broods, XIII in northern Illinois and XIX in southern Illinois. The last time the two came out at the same time was 1803. They won’t emerge concurrently against until 2245.

The effect is not likely to be dramatic, though. Lawrance said the two broods have very little, if any, overlap in their territories, so while there will be many more cicadas emerging at the same time this year, they won’t all be emerging in the same place.

Cicadas not only do no real harm, they do some good, Lawrance said. Their emergence holes aerate the soil and provide homes for bumblebees.

How to prepare

Homewood arborist Bryon Doerr said the damage from cicadas planting their eggs in tree branches is not something residents need to worry about.

“It’s a little light pruning by mother nature,” he said. The branch tips “may die off and the tips go brown. And then eventually they’ll fall to the ground and you just mow them up or rake them up.”

After the cicadas die, they can be disposed of pretty much like any yard waste, he said, by mulching or composting or burying the remains. Or as Lawrance noted, “you can leave them in place because this is free fertilizer.”

Doerr said trees are not at serious risk from cicadas, because the plants and the bugs are used to each other.

“They’ve been doing this before we even got here,” he said. “They’re gonna be here. They’re gonna sing. They’re gonna do their thing. They’re gonna be gone. They’re gonna leave a little bit of tree damage.”

The exception is very young trees. Homewood and Flossmoor suspended spring tree planting programs this year in preparation for the cicada emergence.

Flossmoor Forestry Maintenance Technician Dave Becker said small young trees can suffer serious damage from cicadas.

“The cicadas like the small diameter branches,” he said. “For newer, smaller sapling trees, that’s the majority of the branches.”

Doerr and Becker both recommend that residents who have young trees might want to wrap them in a mesh fabric like cheese cloth or something similar to protect them from cicadas.

How not to prepare

Don’t succumb to the temptation to combat cicadas with insecticides. Doerr and Becker both caution against the use of chemicals in an attempt to keep cicadas at bay.

For one thing, cicadas are edible, and pets, birds and other local wildlife will not be able to resist feeding on them.

Lawrance noted that cicadas are not toxic and that the only risk to pets might be an upset stomach caused by overindulgence.

But cicadas that have been sprayed with chemicals could introduce a risk to pets. What goes on the bugs will go into the dogs, cats and birds in the area.

“Understand the impact of pesticides in the environment,” Doerr said. “We don’t want to encourage any spraying.”

Becker said other insects that are important to the environment could be harmed by insecticide spraying, too.

“You also need to be very careful about killing pollinators and beneficial insects on the plants,” he said. “There’s a possibility of doing more harm than good.”

Although some aspects of their visit, the singing and the smell from the dead, will be annoying, Doerr said it’s a brief problem that a little patience will resolve.

“We got through COVID. I’m pretty sure we can get through this,” he said.

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