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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Cicadas in the Ohio Valley

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, June 19, 2016

This is the year of the cicadas in our area, and it has certainly been a topic of discussion.


Last week, a waitress in a local restaurant calmly informed me that I had a cicada sitting on my shoulder, and she coaxed it onto a menu and took it outside to release it.


The next day at church, a fellow parishioner informed me that, again, I had a cicada sitting on my shoulder.  This time, she removed it and put it in my hands to take outside, which I did, surprising people who were coming to church.


Once on your clothing, they seem to remain motionless until coaxed to leave. 


Some people call them the “17 year locusts” because they do resemble their annual cousins that appear in late summer to chirp their way into autumn; but they are correctly called “cicadas.”


Our area is part of “Brood 5,” a medium-sized brood of cicadas that arrive every 17 years and cover eastern Ohio, northern W. Va., southwestern Pa., and parts of Md. And Va.


The cicadas emerge when the soil, some 8 inches below the surface, reaches the temperature of 64 degrees, sometime between late-April and early-June.


The eggs were placed there 17 years ago by the previous infestation, and they have been living from the juice of plant roots.


They emerge from the ground and climb onto vegetation or a vertical surface to molt until their exoskeletons harden and they emerge to reproduce, where the singing and chirping takes place.


The females cut the “V-shaped” slits in the bark of young plants and trees, where the eggs hatch and return to the soil for 2033.


In my yard, our three maple trees have been infested with cicadas, and some of the newest twigs are dying and falling to the ground due to the slits made by the female cicadas.


My beautiful Rose-of-Sharon bushes are taking the brunt of the destruction, with nearly every limb now dying from the egg-laying process.  There will be no beautiful blossoms on them in late summer this year!


This is my 4th cicada experience.  As a young child, my parents talking about the 1931 infestation in their childhood, and the 1948 event which was the same year that they had purchased the house.


My first cicada encounter was 1965.  My father had purchased new fruit trees for his one acre mini-farm (not remembering the cicada arrival) and I was assigned to place webbing over the little trees and monitor them for stray critters.


I learned how to grab them by the wings and save the fruit trees.  My poor mother’s Rose-of-Sharon bushes took a big hit, and had to be pruned after the cicadas were gone.


When my father found out that the dropping limbs contained the cicada’s eggs, he ran around and picked up every dead limb in sight and placed them on his burning pile.


His diligence paid off in 1982, as few cicadas emerged from his acre of land, but he had missed the fact that they fly as the cicadas came flying onto his site from the neighbors.


One document that discusses this year’s Brood 5 infestation suggested that the greatest mass of cicadas will be found in the Athens, Ohio area.


The earliest documentation of Brood 5 cicadas comes from the writings of Ohio historian Dr. Samuel Hildreth who documented the 1812 and 1829 emergence and talked to people who remembered the 1795 event.


Since cicadas are generally a North American event, can you imagine immigrants arriving in the U.S. in the 19th century from Europe to participate in a cicada event?


The single-most common question that the library has received this cicada season is whether they bite and if they are venomous.


Cicadas do not bite or sting, but they do have mouthparts used in piercing plants and sucking their sap; so they could pierce human skin when handled.  (Guess this is why you need to learn how to grab them by the wings)


There is no sign that they are venomous, or that they transmit diseases.  Unfortunately, a few may be late and emerge next year!


They do help aerate the soil, and provide food for a variety of animals and birds; but my poor Rose-of-Sharon bushes.


There will be some late summer pruning, and hopefully next year their beautiful blossoms will re-emerge again.