Cicadas Vs. Locusts: Know The Difference

This year comes the emergence of the Brood V 17-year periodical cicada—but don’t worry; these aren’t locusts that will cause any crop damage.

by Kevin Fogle
PHOTO: Kevin Fogle/Flickr

“Do you have any tips for dealing with the locusts that have already started to arise from the ground this summer where I live in southern Ohio? My garden plans are currently on hold until I can decide if there is a way to protect my plants.”

This reader asks about the “locust,” which is a term often colloquially used to refer to two very different insects: the periodical cicada and a grasshopper-type locust.

Cicadas Are Not Locusts

Scientifically speaking, the term locust only denotes a number of short-horned grasshopper species found throughout the world, which with the swarming behavior that can cause significant agricultural damage, conjures images of the biblical plague. The timing of the question and geographic location helps ferret out which type of locust the reader is referring to.

When this question was asked in late May, only periodical cicadas would have emerged from the ground, as full-grown adult grasshoppers do not appear until mid- to late summer in Ohio and the Midwest, so what she’s really asking is how does she protect her crops from the arrival of a large brood of 17 year periodical cicadas (Brood V) forecasted for a number of states in the Midwest and Northeast this year.

Cicadas & Your Vegetable Garden

The great news is that cicadas do not feed on vegetable gardens. In fact, adult cicadas feed sparingly on plant sap, not touching leaves, vegetables or fruit. The lifespan of these adult cicadas is quite short—only about a month long. The adult cicadas’ primary mission is to fly around in an almost drunken fashion while searching for mates and laying their eggs—they do little else.

While your garden is completely safe, when large populations of cicadas are present, these noisy insects can injure decorative and fruit trees in your landscape. Damage occurs when the females slice open small-diameter branches to lay their eggs, often causing the bark to peel and girdling the branch. For younger trees and smaller plants, cicada damage may be fatal, but for mature trees, it’s often cosmetic (known as flagging). The one exception is in commercial orchards, where heavy cicada flagging on mature fruiting trees can lower harvest rates.

Protecting Your Trees

There are no organic sprays that are recommended to control cicada populations around the house or garden. To protect valuable and vulnerable young trees, homeowners with heavy periodical cicada populations can consider utilizing netting to prevent female cicadas from attempting to lay their eggs on certain trees and plants.

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