What George Mason Experts Are Saying about…Surviving the Cicadas

Posted: April 27, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

They’re coming. For months, the buzz has been going around that the cicadas will emerge. Some fear that their sidewalks and cars will get covered in carcasses. Some fear for the young trees they just planted in their backyards. Some are just anticipating annoyance and bother. But Jay Shaffer, insect biologist and professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy, is awaiting them with glee.

Jay Shaffer
Jay Shaffer
Photo by Evan Cantwell

“It’s marvelous. A lot of people think it’s a pain, but I think it’s marvelous,” Shaffer says. In his laboratory in Robinson Hall, he sits with several specimens of cicadas he captured from the last time this brood emerged. This will be the fourth time Shaffer will experience the 17-year species of cicadas, ominously called “Brood X,” and the third time while at George Mason. He recently celebrated his 35th anniversary as a professor here.

Shaffer is fascinated by the cicada because the insect has such an interesting life cycle. After living underground and feeding on plant roots for 16 1/2 years, the insect emerges from the ground and becomes an adult, he explains. “As adults, they obtain wings. However, they aren’t very good fliers. You’ll see them buzzing around, but they’re clumsy. They bump into things.”

The area of Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., is expected to be hit heavily by this particular brood starting in mid-May. This brood, of which there are six known species, is found only in the Eastern United States and nowhere else in the world. Shaffer says all broods and all species of 13- and 17-year cicadas, called periodical cicadas, are found only in the Eastern United States (although other kinds of cicadas do exist elsewhere). Their long life cycle helps them avoid predators and therefore prevents them from becoming extinct.

After emerging from the ground, the insects will mate, and each female will lay hundreds of eggs before she dies a few weeks later. They lay their eggs in tree branches, cutting a slit in the branch that can damage a very young tree. “Those who recently planted trees may want to cover them with netting so the cicadas cannot get to them,” says Shaffer.

Other than that, the insects are harmless. More of a nuisance than anything, Brood X will overtake some areas of Northern Virginia for a few weeks, and then disappear almost as quickly as it came. Larry Rockwood, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy, remembers the last time the cicadas came in 1987, George Mason University had its share.

“I recall them mainly from the patch of woods between David King Hall and Fenwick Library,” he says. “They were not hugely abundant, but they were there. There was damage to the outer branches of trees that was evident for many weeks thereafter from the females digging the slits to place the eggs. I also recall seeing them at Mason Neck and Hemlock Overlook.”

However one is preparing for the cicadas’ emergence, Shaffer says not to be fearful of the fascinating insects. “They don’t bite or sting, but they’ll probably splat on your windshield,” he says.

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