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Moment of nature

Posted: October 6, 2011 11:03 a.m.
Updated: October 7, 2011 5:00 a.m.

It is fitting that I write this on my one-year anniversary date working for the city. The year has gone by so fast and I am grateful for your support. It has been a pleasure meeting so many wonderful people and groups along the way as well as getting your thoughts and suggestions for improvements.

During this past year, I’ve had the opportunity to observe and capture many moments of nature up close as I prune, examine and/or water trees. Martha Bruce, the editor of the Chronicle-Independent, has graciously allowed me to share a mini-series of my various experiences. It is my hope that you learn something new and be enriched by the wonders of our natural world.

I’d like to begin this inaugural moment of nature with an unlikely celebrity and alien-looking creature that I become fascinated with back during the summer, the cicada. The name of this unusual bug is a direct derivation of the Latin cicada, meaning “tree cricket.” Most common around here is the annual or dog-day cicada (Tibicen spp.) a signature element of our dog-days of summer, which, have descended upon us with a vengeance. 

So, what is a cicada and what does it do? There are about 2,500 species of cicada around the world, and many of them remain unclassified. Cicadas are flying, plant-sucking insects that do not sting or bite. They live in temperate to tropical climates where they are among the most widely recognized of all insects, mainly due to their large size and unique sound. Cicadas are often colloquially called locusts, although they are unrelated to true locusts, which are a kind of grasshopper. Cicadas are actually related to leafhoppers and spittlebugs which are common to many southern landscapes.

Male cicadas attract females by their characteristic songs, which at times can be quite annoying and rather loud. Adults are approximately 1 ½ inches long and live for about four to six weeks following emergence. After mating, the adult females begin to lay eggs in slits in the twigs of various plants. Upon hatching, nymphs (juvenile’s) drop to the ground, burrow beneath the soil surface and spend the next two to five years feeding on root sap of various trees and shrubs, oak trees in particular. The nymphs are usually tan in color, rather hunch-backed and have stout forelegs they use to dig through soil. To me, they look like an alien creature similar to what has been recreated on many sci-fi movies. If I were 10 years old again, they’d make a great object to scare a younger sibling with, if I had a younger sibling!

When full-grown, nymphs burrow out of the ground at night, creating a hole the size of jumbo magic marker. They crawl up a nearby tree or wall and the skin splits along the back. What emerges is a big-headed, bulging-eyed winged adult that hangs from the plant for several hours.  This newly morphed creature hardens and then flies away, leaving behind their cast nymphal skins. On one of our newly planted street trees I found as many as a dozen such skeletons stuck to the bark, twigs and leaves. In general, cicadas are not considered a major plant pest and usually do only minor damage to plant twigs. Other than that, their role in the cycle of life is to make a good food source for other insects and birds.

Sources: Colorado State University Extension, Texas A&M University -- AgriLife Extension and Wikipedia

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