Cicadas, keep out! Protecting young trees from periodical pest

If you’re older than high school age, you probably remember the last time Brood X cicadas were here, in 2004.

Experts say they’ll be here in force in the first weeks of May, but some are starting to tentatively emerge in the D.C. area.

The anticipation of countless whining, humming cicadas, and the prospect of having them in your hair or mouth is a bit perturbing.

“Sure, people are certainly concerned about the cicadas, but I think sometimes the true concern doesn’t hit until you see them,” said Craig Smith, co-owner of Twins Ace Hardware, in Fairfax, Virginia.

For young, newly planted trees — especially oak, maple, and fruit trees — taking action when you see Brood X would be too late.

“The best thing to do is to wrap your trees in netting,” said Smith, who just happens to sell netting in his store. “The netting needs to contain holes at are three-eighths of an inch, or even just one-quarter of an inch.”

With a combination of extensive investigative reporting training and embarrassing lack of  knowledge about entomology, I asked how the cicadas get from in the ground, where they’ve been living for so long.

“They will actually climb up the tree, so that’s why you want to wrap the netting all the way down the trunk,” said Smith.

And how do the cicadas damage the trees?

“They’re not going to eat your leaves or eat your flowers,” said Smith. “The only major damage they can do is on those twigs and branches by simply laying their eggs, because they saw into them — kind of cut into them, and insert their eggs into where that cut is placed.

For a younger tree, if there are lots of cuts and lots of cicadas, the combination can severely harm it, or even kill it, said Smith. “Or if it’s a fruit tree, it can cause the fruit not to grow properly on the tree.”

While cicadas can be dangerous for trees, for humans they’re more of an annoyance.

“If they get into your house, you’re probably not going to be too thrilled about it,” Smith said, without mentioning his store likely stocks a variety of brooms to sweep cicada carcasses away, sometime in May or June.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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