If you live in North America, you might be familiar with the distinctive hum of cicadas. It’s a sound that signifies the arrival of summer and in some cases, the arrival of a unique insect that only appears once every 17 years. Though there are many subspecies of cicadas, the most interesting and numerous are those that emerge from their underground burrows in swarms, once every decade or so.
Their impending arrival in 2021 has many home gardeners worrying if these long-lived cicadas will eat their vegetable gardens, and what they might be able to do to prevent it.
Will cicadas eat my vegetable garden?
No, cicadas won't eat your vegetable garden in the conventional sense. In fact, most cicadas aren’t interested in chomping into your ripe tomatoes or cucumbers. They would rather gnaw on a tree instead. According to North Carolina State University (NC State), cicadas only feed on woody perennials, not garden vegetables. This doesn’t mean that all your plants are out of the woods just yet, however.
Young trees, blueberries, brambles, and fruit trees are all potential places for female cicadas to lay their eggs. They accomplish this by cutting slits into branches about the diameter of a pencil and laying them within. This means that young plantings of these types of garden plants could be subject to cicada chomping in the upcoming season.
The good news is that the 2021 populations of 17-year cicadas might not be so bad. According to NC State Small Fruit Entomologist Dr. Hannah Burrack, evidence of the 2004 emergence indicates a smaller brood this time around, though people who live in mid-Atlantic and northeastern states might be in for a bigger batch.
Are cicadas good for plants?
According to Great Garden Plants, 17-year cicadas aren’t always bad for plants. Though younger trees are at risk from their gnawing, mature trees often benefit from the pruning they provide. Their emergence from beneath the ground also aerates the soil and when they die at the end of the month, their bodies provide food for animals and nitrogen-rich fertilizer for nearby plants.
How can I protect my garden from cicadas?
First and foremost, do not, under any conditions, spray pesticides on cicadas. Not only will this kill the bugs themselves, but it might also kill any animal unfortunate enough to eat one of the dead ones. But fear not, there are ways to keep cicadas away from your smaller, more vulnerable plants that don’t involve directly killing them.
Cicada Mania suggests wrapping netting or insect exclusion screens around smaller trees to keep cicadas from getting to them. The netting can also be used to wrap smaller, individual libs on large trees if you’re worried about those being affected by cicadas as well. Note that this netting will also dissuade females from laying eggs on your bushes. It can be found online or at hardware and gardening stores.
If you catch them in the act, you could always pick them off the trees by hand or spray them off with a hose. Don’t use a power washer if you can help it, though. In the end, cicadas might be an extremely loud, very crunchy nuisance, but they aren’t really a problem for most backyard gardens.