Cicadas are a huge family consisting of over 3,000 species. You can find these not-so-little bugs almost anywhere in the world. But wherever you look, the public opinion about them is always so mixed. Apparently, not everyone thinks Cicadas are lovable dorks worth protecting.
Many people actually dread Cicada season, and for valid reasons. Cicadas can be a nuisance pest. They’re loud, they’re everywhere, and they swarm in huge numbers wherever they go.
But there’s more to these insects than just being annoying. They’re really great for the local environment, believe it or not.
How Do Cicadas Help the Environment?
Love them or hate them, Cicadas are undeniably beneficial for the environment. They keep both the flora and fauna alive, and they nourish the soil in multiple ways. Like any other creature in the food chain, Cicadas have their rightful role in keeping up nature’s delicate balance.
But let’s go into further detail. Why exactly are Cicadas so great for the environment? Well, here are just some of the reasons:
– They’re A Great Food Source
First of all, when Cicadas first emerge, it’s like an epic free-for-all buffet. These insects appear in such large numbers that they’re impossible to miss. Their abundance makes them a plentiful source of nourishment for other insects and animals.
Because Cicadas don’t have any chemical defenses like poison or venom, they’re safe to eat for basically anyone. Also, Cicadas are extremely loud, and they’re clumsy fliers. All this makes them vulnerable to any creature that might want to eat them. And boy, are there plenty.
Starting with insects, the humble Cicada should watch out for: spiders, wasps, robber flies, mantises, and fire ants. Then, there are also birds, snakes, lizards, rodents, fish, cats and dogs, opossums, raccoons, moles. Must I go on? Well, you know what, I will.
There are also microorganisms that feed on Cicadas, such as the fungus “Massospora cicadina.” This dreaded fungus settles on the Cicadas’ abdomens, eating away and spreading inside its body until the poor thing bursts open.
And let’s not forget that people eat them too! Yup, that’s right. Cicadas are a safe, sustainable, protein and nutrient-rich food source for humans. According to the USDA, Cicadas are a safe and nourishing food source. However, people with seafood allergies shouldn’t consume them, as they might trigger an adverse reaction.
– They Aerate the Soil
Cicadas have strong legs that allow them to dig tunnels underground. After the young nymphs hatch from the eggs, they dig holes to hide from predators. They burrow and live most of their lives at a depth of 8 feet.
They also dig around when searching for plant roots to feed on. When they’re ready to emerge, they make their way back up to the surface. You’ll know that Cicadas are preparing to come out when you see multiple small holes in the ground.
All this digging is actually beneficial for the soil. Cicadas complete a natural process of soil aeration, which brings many benefits. It reduces soil compaction and allows for easier oxygen transfer and soil oxidation.
Thanks to these small holes and tunnels, all the air, water, and nutrients reach deeper into the ground. The soil becomes more fertile, and the trees and grasses get nourished as a result.
– They Help with Pruning Trees
Cicadas aid us in trimming trees naturally. How do they do that? When they lay their eggs on tree branches, they inevitably damage the branch structure. But they don’t exactly have mouthparts for biting or eating in a traditional sense. They don’t chew on these branches, as one might imagine.
However, female Cicadas have a versatile organ called an “ovipositor”. This long, saber-looking organ is located on the lower half of the abdomen. Cicadas use the ovipositor to cut slits along tree branches when laying eggs.
As time passes, the cut branches succumb to this damage. Branches where Cicadas lay their eggs start drying up, and they become brittle. Eventually, these branches break and fall off naturally. That sounds bad, but trimming tree branches can be beneficial. It keeps the trees strong and contributes to a healthier crown structure.
– They Fertilize the Soil
Some Cicada species can live up to 17 years. Most of that time is spent underground, where the Cicada nymphs feed on plant fluids. They act similar to parasites because they take away necessary nutrients the trees and plants could otherwise use for growth. However, when Cicada adults die, it’s their time to give back.
Once they’ve completed their life cycle, Cicadas start dying off, and they return to the ground. As their bodies decompose, they start releasing large amounts of nitrogen into the soil. In fact, Cicadas’ bodies contain 10% nitrogen.
That’s more than any type of dead foliage compost. Not only that, but according to Louie H. Yang, a researcher at UC Davis, the nitrogen released by Cicadas has a unique isotopic signature.
As a result, dead Cicadas make a potent, natural fertilizer. They deliver a considerable quantity of nutrients into the soil. According to scientific reports, dead Cicadas lead to a boost in vegetation growth. Tree growth reportedly increases for several years after Periodical Cicadas emerge en masse.
What Damage Do Cicadas Cause?
Cicadas might seem intimidating given their size and loudness. But these bugs are harmless. They aren’t poisonous, they don’t sting, and they don’t bite. Cicadas don’t eat plant leaves or flowers either, so your garden is mostly safe. However, there is one way in which they could cause damage.
As I’ve already mentioned, Cicadas help us trim trees naturally. Well, this can be either a good or a bad thing. While older trees aren’t in danger, younger trees might wither away and die if too many Cicadas flock to their branches.
In older trees, damaged branches don’t pose a threat, but they might be visually unappealing. However, even in the worst cases, the extent of the damage is going to be limited. But if you’d rather be extra safe, you might want to consider tree netting during Cicada season.
Should You Kill Cicadas?
So, should you exterminate these loud bugs to protect your garden? Many entomologists advise against this. Cicadas emerge in such high numbers (billions at a time) that they’re practically impossible to manage.
Moreover, there aren’t any special insecticides devices to target Cicadas alone. If you try exterminating them, you’ll also end up affecting other beneficial insect populations such as bees, beetles, and butterflies. You could also negatively impact the birds, rodents, and other insectivores preying on these insects.
At least three Periodical Cicada Species are near threatened, according to the IUCN red list. And considering how beneficial these bugs are for the ecosystem, you’d be doing more harm than good by killing them. Any damage they might cause to the trees in your area is offset by all the other great things Cicadas do for the vegetation.
Cicadas are not only harmless, but they’re also beneficial. These peaceful insects only live for 4-6 weeks once they emerge in early spring. But they do a lot of good during their short (adult) lifespan.
Cicadas help the environment in more ways than one. They make great feed for animals and soil. They also trim tree branches, and they make trees sturdier and healthier. They also aerate the soil for better moisture and nutrient uptake. I think it’s time that these guys’ work should be recognized! What do you think?Cicadas