The 17-year cicadas are overrated

By |  August 19, 2013

So what happened to all those 17-year cicadas that were supposed to emerge from the dirt, blotting out the sun with their sheer numbers?

And, more important, what did they do on golf courses?

Brood II of the cicadas started to emerge along the East Coast early this summer. The insects spent 17 years out of sight as juveniles underground. Depending on whom you believed, this summer there are supposed to be 100 times as many cicadas out as there were people. One published report estimated 30 billion of the critters ruining turf in a wide swath from New England through the Carolinas to Florida. Yes — 30 billion.

“It was a big, overblown thing,” says Rick Brandenberg, Ph.D., professor of entomology at North Carolina State University. “The numbers simply were not there.”

His analysis is echoed by superintendents and specialists from the mid-Atlantic through the South.

So where were the cicadas?

There are 12 broods of cicadas in the eastern half of the United States that have a 17-year life cycle. Another three broods mature every 13 years. Some are annual. They do not necessarily occupy separate biological niches but the ranges of each group tend to be separate. This year’s brood was supposed to ravage the regions the way Attila the Hun ravaged Europe. It didn’t happen.

Don’t look just at this past Spring’s weather for an answer to the no-shows. Brandenberg notes that the insects were in the soil for 16 years. “It could be anything that happened anytime over the course of their lifecycle,” he says. So something that happened in the late 1990s (like when Garth Brooks released that rock album) or five years ago (maybe the cicadas are Patriots fans, and David Tyree’s 4th quarter catch did them in?) could have disrupted the outburst.

This contrasts to the outbreak several years ago when, Brandenberg notes, “their numbers were unbelievable!”

Does this mean that the next go-round of 17-year cicadas will be huge? Or will the population be knocked down?

It seems that pinpointing actual numbers for any brood would be like picking the Powerball – just one person’s guess. Hang around the maintenance facility for 17 more years and you’ll have the answer.

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