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Bugging Out

By Jesse Campbell (

Article Published: May. 16, 2013 | Modified: May. 16, 2013
Bugging Out

While harmless, 17-year cicadas provide an opportunity to study a unique species of insects.

Photo submitted

Rest assured Watauga County, the 17-year cicadas are that are preparing to descend, or rather ascend, on the eastern United States are harmless — even if their loud mating song might seem relentless.

The periodical plant-sucking insects are expected to come above ground at any time, but will most likely be concentrated in locations east of the High Country, according to Appalachian State University biology professor Ray Williams.

The cicadas, which are commonly confused with locusts or grasshoppers, spend their formative years below ground, only surfacing as adults to complete their mating cycle before dying.

While the bugs are harmless to children and pets, they can pose as a nuisance when considering the sheer volume of the bugs and their incessant mating sound, called the cicada song.

“They come out all at once, so it makes it very dramatic,” Williams said. “You have millions that come out during a seven-day period.”

Williams said the male cicadas have an “interesting way of singing” that is done through a drum-like membrane on the side of the insect’s body that pulls air in and out, producing a very high-pitched sound.

“After mating, the females lay their eggs on the ends of tree limbs on twigs, and the eggs will develop in that wood before they fall off and burrow into the ground when they hatch,” Williams said.
While large swarms of cicadas in the region are rare, they are not unheard of.

About four years ago, a different brood of cicadas invaded Elizabethton, Tenn., putting the small mountain town in headlines nationwide.

Aside from minor cosmetic damage the eggs cause to the ends of tree limbs, Williams said the insects pose no real threat.

“Compared to a lot insects, they are harmless,” Williams said. “An adult is about a couple of inches long and has real bright red eyes. They can be a little intimidating in that respect. In terms of damage, aside from the fact if you have an orchid — and I don’t know if they will even lay eggs on just any type of tree, as they seem to prefer oak — they are not going to do any long-term damage. They are no direct harm to people. They don’t bite or sting.”

As for any precautionary measures, Williams said there really isn’t much you can do other than have some earplugs ready to endure their sound.

“There’s not a single thing you need to do,” Williams said. “They are not harmful to animals or kids. They will live a few weeks as adults at the most. The majority of their lifestyle is in the ground. You just have to let them run their course more or less.”

As for why the bugs only surface once every 17 years, Williams said it is probably an issue of how the planet has changed throughout time.

“Maybe it goes back in evolutionary history when the climate was so different that it made to sense have cycles like that,” Williams said.

This 17-year variety of cicadas is just one of a number of broods that have made their presence known in the eastern part of the nation. “Dog Days” cicadas typically emerge during the heat of the summer during July and August. They, too, make a high pitch raspy sound during the day, Williams said.

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