Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Birds, Bees and Cicadas

I have been thinking alot about insects because of the emergence of the Brood II cicadas.

I write for several blogs and when describing these large, ugly members of the locust family I tended toward the science-fiction type of invasion angle -- THEY CAME FROM BROOD II!! -- and the like. This is how most people look at these insects.

Cicadas are out in the late-summer heat every year. MH hears these annual cicadas and is reminded of how he felt with summer ending and the return to school looming.

These cicadas, however, have spent most of the past 17 years evolving from eggs to nymphs until the 17th year when, after the soil has reached 63 degrees F, they climb out of the ground, shed their skins and then fly to a tree and begin calling. Even though we are seeing them for the first time, it is really near the end of their lives. The males will mate and die. The females will mate, cut a slit in a tree, lay their eggs in it and then die. The eggs will hatch and the young will drop to the ground and go below for another 17 years.

Cicadas mating, June 2013 by Margo D. Beller
Pretty mundane stuff. These cicadas don't sting like wasps, they don't eat your plants like locusts and they don't bite you like a mosquito. They are ugly, but a lot of insects are ugly. Unlike a lot of ugly insects like the praying mantis, it's not going to pick off bad bugs in your garden. It will just mate and die and leave its crunchy carcass on the ground for you to brush off or your dog to eat, as I saw the dog of a friend do as a few of the cicadas fell on her deck. There are even recipes and restaurants serving cicadas, if you are into that.

What had alarmed me at first was the noise. All those thousands, millions of cicadas making their call, sounding like one of those cheesy sci-fi sound effects for a spaceship. Not too far away from my town, in Morris Township, NJ, I had gone to one of my favorite birding places and barely heard the birds for the din. In my town there were none of these cicadas calling until only the last week, and the noise was certainly less than that of the lawn service mowers or the dogs barking from their backyards.

I wondered about that. Why weren't there more of these cicadas closer to my home? MH pointed out that 18 years ago - it seems like yesterday - a single crack in a bearing wall led to 10 months of contracted workmen inside and outside the house. These workmen at one point had ripped up the entire lawn to do work on the house foundation and then, since it would need new grass anyway, put in an underground sprinkler system.
June 2013, by RE Berg-Andersson

MH thought that disruption 18 years ago wiped out the eggs of that brood of Brood II cicadas. OK, I said, but that doesn't explain the area around our house.

But perhaps it does. I live in a part of suburbia that does not tear down the old houses, as is the case in other towns, but builds on. Building on, making a house two or three times the size, requires digging out the land and putting in a new foundation. If enough people did that, perhaps they, too, inadvertently wiped out the cicadas.

Or maybe it was Hurricane Sandy. In my part of the state it wasn't the flooding but the winds that uprooted trees by the thousands. Doing so might have wiped out the eggs.

When I hear the noise of a few cicadas, it is from the area of the old Greystone that is now the Central Park of Morris County. Around the time I was having work done on the house, the state was forced to build a smaller, more modern mental hospital because of well-publicized abuses that embarrassed then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. The bulk of the Greystone land was sold to Morris County, for $1, to create a park. In the process of doing so a lot of stone buildings were taken down, trees were uprooted and ground was dug up for playgrounds, ballfields and the like.

So that may be why I hear little in the way of Brood II when I walk around.

However, there are many more of them and they are much louder in the areas where I hike, which are county parks or land owned by New Jersey Audubon or the federal government. There is no "development" on this land except that of the natural cycle of birds, bees and insects. 

June 2013, by Margo D. Beller
While I worry about the overdevelopment of New Jersey, building huge houses where there once were farms, or expanding to create huge houses so each kid could have a room and each parent a mancave or restaurant-quality kitchen for eating take-out, I am not worried about Brood II.

Part of Nature's plan is the brood is so large that even if every bird caught a cicada (and since this is the time of year when young at the nest need to be fed, that means a lot of hungry birds) there would still be more than enough for most of the females to lay eggs for the next generation of Brood II.

The joke, if you can call it that, has always been that the cockroaches will survive after a nuclear holocaust wipes out humanity. I've no doubt cicadas will survive, too. In the meantime, this "invasion" should be over by July.