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West Virginians brace for return of cicadas

WHEELING, W.Va. — It will start with holes in the soil. Holes that are a quarter of an inch wide, pushed out toward the sky. The noise will arrive soon after.

Brood V cicadas last appeared in 1999, and they’re on their way back to complete a 17-year life cycle.

When the soil is warmed to a sound 64 degrees 8 inches below the surface, the bugs will emerge and pursue breeding.

Much of West Virginia and Ohio, as well as sections of Pennsylvania and Virginia, will host this ancient ritual throughout May and June, and while the bugs mean no harm to people, they will undoubtedly present a major inconvenience because of sheer numbers.

Trillions of cicadas are expected, consisting of three species: magicicada septendecim, magicicada cassini and magicicada septendecula. They leave the soil, where they’ve spent most of their lives sucking nutrients from tree roots, in a shelled, unwinged nymph form and mount themselves in trees until they molt into full-fledged cicadas.

Males then begin singing a long, droning chirp. This persuades females to mate, who then cut small slits in tree branches to lay their eggs. Hatched, new nymphs burrow underground, and the cycle begins again.

Cicadas do this in two to six weeks, and then they die.

While it’s a mess because these insects will be inescapable for about two months, naturalist Scott Shalaway said their emergence will benefit various species of animals by providing a nearly endless food source. These animals include opossums, moles turkeys in particular, but most birds, rodents, mammals, reptiles and some fish will eat cicadas.

It’s believed periodic broods stick to their emergence cycles as a survival strategy because such long absences deter predator populations from exploding. Brood V is one of 12 17-year cycle broods. Another three broods operate on a 13-year clock.

A natural enemy of the cicada is the cicada killer wasp, which can reach two inches in length. But West Virginia University Extension Service Entomology Specialist Daniel Frank said this insect is only common in late summer and early fall, so they will not coincide with Brood V.

The wasps make an annual appearance and feed on regular cicadas that are found every year.

Shalaway said humans have also taken to eating cicadas. It’s been a trending subject of several magazine features in the last few years. National Geographic labeled them “gluten free” in a 2013 article, while the University of Maryland published a cicada recipe book in 2004.

Although the verdict is still out because cicadas spend time underground absorbing pesticides and other lawn treatment chemicals, a common argument is that they are high in protein and readily available.

Shalaway said another benefit of a mass cicada emergence is that the holes they burrow aerate the soil and allow in additional moisture. This is believed important for general soil ecology and tree growth.

Also, the slits females cut in tree branches for eggs offer a natural means of pruning, enabling further growth later in a tree’s life.

Grow Ohio Valley, a sustainable food producer in Wheeling, was to plant nearly five acres of apple trees this spring, but co-founder Danny Swan said cicadas can prove lethal to infant trees, as they cannot yet manage the needs of these insects.

The orchard is intended for Vineyard Hill where Grandview Manor once sat. He said it’s a large investment, so Grow OV will wait out Brood V and plant next year.

The WVU Extension Service has advised wrapping trees five years or younger in lightweight netting to ward off nesting cicadas. It’s best to apply nets right when their singing begins, and to remove them a month after their song concludes.

The extension services also made clear that cicadas cannot harm humans. They do not sting or bite, and they are not toxic. It’s just their presence that’s uncomfortable.

Zac Jebbia of Wheeling said he’d rather not be here when they emerge.

“I really wish I could leave for it and come back after,” he said.

He remembered finding the event exciting when he was young, but as an adult he cannot expect any pleasure in it.

Dave Millhouse, a West Virginia Division of Highways employee, said Brood V’s return makes him remember their 1999 appearance. He recalled his co-worker, Ken Buchanan, firing up an asphalt roller for a paving project, and how the brood swarmed him, covering his body. He said the cicadas were attracted to the sound of the equipment.

“You automatically think back to the last time because it was significant,” Millhouse said.

Jebbia’s friend, Brent Sheetz, shared Jebbia’s frustration, but understood the nature of the beast.

“In all reality, they come, and then they’re gone,” Sheetz said.

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