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What to Know about Cicadas

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Cicadas may not wreak the devastating effects of locusts, with which they are often confused, but these seasonal pests can damage some Colorado trees and shrubs when large populations emerge.

Cicadas vs. Locusts

Cicadas, particularly the periodical cicadas of the 13-year and 17-year varieties, are sometimes mistakenly referred to in America as locusts. This error can likely be traced to early European settlers who were familiar with the Biblical description of locusts but had not previously encountered the periodical cicadas common from the Northeast to the Midwest.

Cicadas and locusts actually belong to two separate orders of insects, with cicadas members of the Hemiptera family that includes aphids and shield bugs, and locusts members of the Acrididae family, which includes thousands of species of grasshoppers.

Although cicadas may gather in highly mobile groups of hundreds of thousands that can damage young or otherwise vulnerable trees and shrubs, they lack the destructive force of locusts. Swarming, migratory grasshoppers with voracious appetites, locusts can travel great distances and ravage crops and other plant life along the way.

Cicada Life Cycle

Cicada eggs are generally inserted by adults into the stems of trees, shrubs or other plants. After hatching, cicada nymphs burrow themselves underground, where they feed on liquid from plant roots before emerging as adults.

The transition from nymph to adulthood depends on the species of cicada. For some, it is nearly two decades; for others, such as the dog day cicada common in Colorado, adults appear each year. The exoskeletal shells of cicadas that have molted are often found clinging to trees.

Once they have reached adulthood, most cicadas have only a matter of weeks to months in order to feed, mate and lay eggs. During adulthood, cicadas are susceptible to predation by birds, squirrels and even wasps, another common summertime pest.

Song of the Cicadas

The song of cicadas is a familiar one along much of Colorado’s Front Range in the summer months, but it is sung only by males.

Unlike the sounds produced by crickets or grasshoppers, which are the source of body parts rubbing against one another, the call of cicadas is produced by anatomic noisemakers known as tymbals.

In cicadas, tymbals are membranes located on the exoskeleton along the base of the abdomen. These membranes can be contracted or vibrated, causing clicks or shrill hums that are amplified by enlarged, hollow chambers in cicadas’ bodies. While only male cicadas produce sound, both males and females possess tymbals, which also allow cicadas to detect sound.

Cicadas and Plant Damage

Though cicadas can appear scary, they are not harmful to humans. Large populations, however, can damage plants, primarily through females that insert their eggs into branches and stems.

According to the Colorado State University Extension, those who have vulnerable or high-value plants (such as saplings) may wish to cover plants with tight-mesh netting to prevent adult cicadas from reaching the plants. Of the 26 species of cicada found in Colorado, only two are associated with detectable plant damage.

If you’re facing a pest infestation in your home or business, please contact Animal & Pest Control Specialist, Inc. online or call us at 303-987-0842. Our pest control experts are proud to serve customers from the Denver metro area, Fort Collins and along Colorado’s Front Range.


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