Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Don't Call 'Em Locusts

Cicadas are pests, not plague.

By Walter Jowers

MAY 18, 1998:  I had a feeling the bugs were coming Sunday night. So that afternoon, I called my neighbor and garden advisor, Beth. I called her because she knows plants, bugs, and the Bible.

"First thing everybody needs to know," Beth said, "is that these bugs are not locusts. Locusts are a plague, right up there with rivers running red with blood. These are just plain old cicadas. Calling 'em locusts is probably heresy, and it can get you in trouble with the church, if not the Lord Almighty Himself."

Beth works at a local nursery. She says people are getting neurotic about the cicadas. On one end of the goofball teeter-totter, you've got your fundamentalists, twitchy from maintaining their 24-hour Rapture Watch. These people want the bugs to be locusts--a signal for all true believers to run to their TV sets and watch Armageddon on CNN. On the other, you've got misinformed backyard gardeners thinking the bugs are going to gnaw every tree, shrub, and flower down to the ground.

The cicadas will not hurt plants. "They are here to fornicate and die. Nothing more to it than that," Beth says. During the 1985 cicada invasion, she only heard of one cicada injury, which occurred when a couple of the bugs flew in through the window of a pickup truck. The driver started slapping at the bugs and lost control of the vehicle. His injuries were minor.

Back in 1985, our king-hell bug invasion was the result of two groups of cicadas--the seven-year and the 13-year varieties--coming up at the same time. Even then, plant damage was pretty much confined to the branch tips of mature trees, mostly hackberries.

After the bugs mate, the females will cut slits in the pencil-sized branches of trees and shrubs. They'll lay their eggs in those slits. The eggs will hatch, the nymphs will fall to the ground, then burrow down into the dirt and gently suck sap from tree roots until 2011. At most, a tree will lose a few branch tips. No harm, no foul.

Still, some people--anal suburban types in particular--feel like they just have to do something about the bugs. These are the very same people who cut their boxwoods square, buy scented toilet paper, and spray Thompson's Water Seal on their fieldstone patios in a crazy attempt to protect 10-million-year-old rock from the ravages of weather.

Not quite content with fuzzy toilet seat covers, glamour-length nails, and panty hose under slacks, these folks are going out and buying cloth to wrap around their trees. Because people like them just ought not to have bugs on their trees. Worse yet, some have wrapped their tree trunks with tinfoil so the cicadas can't climb up them.

You people, listen to me: The bugs are smarter than you are. They know better than to kill the trees. They'll need 'em alive, so their babies can suck the root sap for 13 years and have something to climb on when they're all grown up. The bugs aren't the problem--you're the problem.

Just the act of clothing and unclothing a tree will likely do more damage than the bugs will. And that tinfoil-on-the-trunk idea is a real loser. That'll keep your tree bark wet and cause it to rot. The only advantage of tinfoiled trees is that they mark the homes of the way-too-anal.

"One man at the nursery told me he was going to spray his yard with insecticide every day for six weeks," Beth said. Now, this is a certifiable goofy-ass idea, on a par with killing ants with cruise missiles. Six weeks of steady poison will end up wasting not only the cicadas, but every bug, worm, and songbird that sets foot on the property. It'll be the Gulf War on a backyard scale.

I'm no great fan of bugs. I've been known to change direction just so I can step on roaches and those big, fat-butted ants. When I was a kid, I enjoyed shooting bumblebees with my pellet gun. (Only when they were in flight, never when they were parked. That wouldn't have been sporting.) But the cicadas can't bite, can't sting, and can't hurt anything. If one lands on me, I'll brush it off. The rest of 'em can just go about their fornicating and dying, and I won't give 'em a second look.

Visit Walter's Web site at www.nashscene.com/~housesense, or e-mail him at walter.jowers@nashville.com.

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