OHIO OUTDOOR NOTEBOOK
By Laura Jones, Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Emerging cicadas might be a bust for us, but they’re a boon for Ohio’s wildlife
It’s hard to say which is louder right now: the media frenzy over the appearance of the 17-year cicadas in Ohio or the emerging host of insects themselves. Much of the news coverage tells of hysterical spring brides canceling outdoor weddings, graduation parties moving indoors and golfers bemoaning the inconvenience of having to putt around rotting bug carcasses.
I just can’t help wondering how different this entomological tale would be told if it were coming from the perspective of Ohio’s wildlife. You see, while cicadas may look and sound like alien invaders, they are very much a part of the state’s natural landscape, which means they like other native wildlife have a niche in Ohio’s ecology.
Entomologists say there are 15 broods of periodical cicadas found in the United States, which are labeled using Roman numerals. Ohio has four of those broods: V, VIII, X and XIV.
For the last 17 years, Brood X the offspring from the cicada class of 1987 has stayed burrowed 2 to 18-inches below the soil, existing on tender tree roots. Now mature, their time down under has ended and the cicada nymphs are tunneling out of subterranean hideaways and into our forests, parks and yards.
Brood X cicadas are emerging all over west-central Ohio and the Cincinnati area. As they do, the wingless nymphs attach themselves to tree trunks and tall plants then break out of their brown, papery “shells.” As adults, they are about 1.5-inches long, sport translucent wings, have big eyes and dark bodies.
But why do they emerge in such huge numbers? Well, it’s just nature’s quirky solution to a food versus procreation issue. With hordes of cicadas coming out at once, there is enough for wildlife to eat its fill while leaving a sufficient amount to guarantee the cicada brood’s future.
Now, with only a few short weeks to live, cicadas are focused on finding mates, which is what all the buzzing is about. From sunup to after sundown, male cicadas are filling the airwaves with frantic mating calls, while females work tirelessly cutting slits in narrow tree branches to deposit their eggs. For all their efforts, the cicadas die soon after.
Six weeks from now, the eggs will hatch and tiny cicada nymphs will drop to the soil, burrowing among the tree roots to ensure the next Brood X generation will emerge in 2021.
Experts are predicting as many as 5 billion Brood X cicadas will put in an appearance this spring, creating a real food fest for songbirds, grouse, waterfowl, bass, coyotes, squirrels and other wildlife. Such an abundant food source translates into stronger and healthier wildlife populations.
“We know that many different wildlife species benefit from the cicadas, but their appearance in 1999 had a remarkable impact on Ohio’s wild turkey population,” says Steve Gray, chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife.
“That spring, Brood V visited nearly the entire eastern half of Ohio. The abundance of cicadas coupled with a dry spring brought higher than normal survival rates for young turkeys,” Gray explains. As a result, in the years that immediately followed, there was a dramatic increase in the state’s wild turkey population.
While cicadas will be popping up in many backyards, the greatest numbers are converging in forested areas and on properties surrounded by woodlots.
If these noisy bugs aren’t chattering in your neck of the woods and you’d like to learn what all the commotion is about, just visit a state park, nature preserve, forest or wildlife area where the cicadas are putting in an appearance.
Brood X will be gone by mid to-late June, but waiting in the wings is Brood XIV, which will rise up in southwestern Ohio the spring of 2008. Undoubtedly, so too the media frenzy.