As It Happens

Virginia farmer braces for millions of cicadas, emerging for 1st time in 17 years

It's good news for hungry raccoons and excited entomologists — but bad news for Debbe Noonkester.

Periodical cicadas can do significant damage to small trees like those on Debbe Noonkester's orchard

One of the millions of periodical cicadas in the area clings to a leaf on Saturday, June 1, 2019, after it emerged from a 17-year hibernation in Zelienople, Pa. Another brood is now emerging in the southern U.S. (Keith Srakocic/The Associated Press)


It's good news for hungry raccoons and excited entomologists — but bad news for Debbe Noonkester.

The Virginia farmer is bracing for the impact of millions of periodical cicadas, the noisy insects that are emerging in southwest Virginia, West Virginia and parts of North Carolina for the first time in 17 years.

"When I see one on the tree, I know it doesn't help a whole lot. I just pick them off and step on them, and say, 'Take that, critter!'" Noonkester told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"Because I know how much damage they're going to do when they get out in force, but there's not a whole lot we can do."

Underground dwellers on the hunt for a mate

Periodical cicadas exist in about 15 populations, known as broods.

They are among the longest-living insects on the planet, but they spend the first 13 to 17 years of their lives underground, happily feeding on tree roots and not bothering anyone. 

That is, until it's time to breed. 

Brood IX in the southern U.S. has arrived at the breeding stage of the life cycle, and they've begun the process of crawling out of the earth, busting free from their exoskeletons, and swarming the skies by the millions in search of mates. 

Empty, nymphal skin of cicadas remain in a tree following the hatch of Brood XIII on June 11, 2007, in Willow Springs, Ill. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

As many as 1.5 million cicadas may emerge per acre, according to a press release from Virginia Tech, creating massive, buzzing swarms. 

"It's like a loud, loud humming noise, like millions of grasshoppers all at once," Noonkester said. "Then they've got this weird shriek every once in a while ... and it's a just really, really strange sound."

'What's not to love about them?'

The creatures don't stick around long. Once they find a mate, they lay their eggs inside tree branches and die, starting the whole cycle over again.

While they're around, they make great snacks for small animals like birds and raccoons, and they're completely harmless to humans. 

"What's not to love about them?" Eric Day, an entomologist at Virginia Tech told the Star Tribune newspaper. 

"This is a biological phenomenon," he added. "So we can observe them and maybe even enjoy them."

Noonkester doesn't enjoy them one bit.

While the cicadas don't eat livestock, they can still cause significant damage to young trees — the kind she depends on at Windy Hill Orchards in Ararat, Va., where families come to pick blueberries, blackberries, peaches and apples.

Cicada carcasses are seen at the base of a tree in Elmhurst, Ill., as the the periodical bugs die off, not set to return for another 17 years. (Robert Graves/The Associated Press)

That's because female cicadas lay millions of eggs inside pencil-thin tree branches using a sharp tube-like appendage called an ovipositor. This causes the branch or vine to split, making healthy leaves wither and die. 

Mature trees can withstand the process just fine, but younger ones can become stunted or even die. 

"If you take a knife and you cut the peeling off, let's say a grape, OK? And you know how the grape skin would kind of peel back a little bit?" Noonkester said. "Well, imagine that all over ... the bark of the tree."

It's something she's experienced before, when the last brood emerged 17 years ago. 

"We probably lost about 500 trees last time," she said.

Noonkester doesn't have much defence against the critters. She's sprayed pesticides to keep too many from emerging on her farm at once. 

But she has to be careful what she sprays and how often. There are certain bugs — like spiders and praying mantises — that play an important role in the farm's ecosystem.

"Some of the orchards, they spray every day. I'm not going to get out here and spray every day. We're a low-spray orchard," she said. 

"We don't use kill 'em all sprays, because we like our meat eaters here in this orchard."

In the meantime, all she can do is prune damaged tree branches and hope for the best until the cicadas die off in two to four weeks.

"Cicadas can occur in overwhelming numbers and growers in predicted areas of activity should be watchful," Virginia Tech entomologist Doug Pfeiffer said in a press release. 

"This insect is really fascinating, and if you don't have fruit trees or grapevines to protect, you can enjoy this phenomenon while it lasts."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Debbe Noonkester produced by Kate Swoger.

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