Archived Story

Cicadas come in both 13-year and dog-day varieties

Published 10:11am Wednesday, August 24, 2011

2011 is the year for swarms of 13-year cicadas in the Dark Corner and all of Upcountry South Carolina, as well as parts or all of 15 or 16 other Southern states.
Swarms have not materialized here yet even though small numbers of them arrived in late April. Some may still be coming but they will be overlapping the slightly larger, annual ones we see each year around dog days in late summer.
The 13-year variety are fat, black-bodied, red-eyed “cusses” that have orange-veined wings. The last time we saw them was in 1998. We won’t see them again until 2024.
They are not really pests unless they swarm in large groups or get into your hair, your house or your car.
After all, they are only doing what comes naturally. Having lived underground sucking out nutrients from tree roots for 13 years, they hatch and burst forth to the surface where they shed their skin and turn from white to black.
They live only four or five weeks, during which time males make quite audible noises as they sing to attract females. They mate, she lays eggs and then they both die. That’s not a particularly exciting or exotic existence, but it suits the creator’s role for them.
Females lay their eggs in tree twigs and in six to eight weeks they hatch.
The new, ant-like “nymphs” are tiny and drift down to the ground, where they quickly bore about 10 inches under the soil. They attach themselves to tree and bush roots, sucking out nutrients as they grow for the next 13 years.
Our annual, dog-day cicadas are much different. Not only do we see them every year, but they are larger and have green bodies and black eyes.
The skins they shed are hard to miss. When one first sees the discarded shell it looks as though the prior occupant is still in it. Only on close examination can one be sure. These shells have been favorite finds for children of all ages in the Dark Corner.
While living out their short existences, the dog-day cicadas are not dangerous. They don’t bite or sting. They simply suck sap from tender twigs. While many folks think they suck on leaves, they do not.
Oak and sweet gum trees are favorite spots for females to make slits in small branches and twigs for depositing eggs, but they will sometimes use smaller trees and ornamentals, like dogwoods and azaleas, as well.
No long-term damage is done to the trees and ornamentals, but occasionally a branch will turn brown and fall to the ground.
The visits of cicadas to the area, whether an annual or an every-13-years event, are unique opportunities to observe a natural phenomenon up close.

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