New Jersey Cicada Countdown

Amy O'Connor | May 6, 2013 | More Issues, Social
After 17 years in the dark, Garden State's infrequent insect visitors are poised for next brief moment in the sun

The return of warm temperatures this spring will also bring the return of some long-delayed visitors, ones who’ve been working their way back — or in this case, up — to the Garden State for the past 17 years.

One of the largest broods of periodical cicadas — of the genus Magicicadas — will be literally popping up along the East Coast from the Carolinas all the way to New York City. Cicadas are insects that spend most of their lives underground, emerging after 13 or 17 years to mate and lay eggs.

“If this brood follows the same pattern as the last time, it will emerge mostly in northern New Jersey,” says George Hamilton, chairman of the Entomology Department at Rutgers University.

Experts expect the creatures to surface once the underground soil temperature hits 64 degrees. Once they come out, they only live a few weeks.

To better predict the arrival of the Magicicadas, WNYC’s Radiolab has created an online Cicada Tracker. Listeners across the East Coast have been planting homemade temperature sensors eight inches beneath the soil to gauge how close their area is to the 64-degree mark. All the findings are recorded on the website’s cicada-tracking map.

In the meantime, NJ Spotlight went to Metuchen’s own Dan Mozgai, cicada fanatic and creator of the Cicada Mania website. Mozgai created his website when the brood last emerged in 1996 and gave us an idea of what New Jersey can expect in the coming months.

Question: What did you see in 1996?

Answer: In Metuchen, the emergence was moderate with only a few hundred cicadas emerging in my back yard. In some parts of Edison so many cicadas emerged they needed to be cleaned up with rakes and buckets.

In Westfield I witnessed them while attending an outdoor wedding. Surprisingly they did not spoil the wedding at all — if anything they added to the fun, providing a whimsical distraction for guests, and providing the kids with something to do [collect the cicadas].

Q: Where and why were there more cicadas in some areas than others?

A: There were greater numbers of cicadas in locations with more trees than those with few trees. Locations in Edison, with many oaks and maples, had large populations emerge. More developed areas had fewer cicadas because their host trees had been removed.

The cicada lifecycle depends on deciduous trees, so the more trees, the more cicadas you might find. Considering the amount of housing development that has occurred in Jersey over the past 17 years, a lot of cicada habitat has been destroyed.

Q: Should people take any precautions with cicadas?

A: There is no need to spray for cicadas. They pose no health risks to human beings. They are not venomous, nor do they spread disease. They don’t eat plant leaves or vegetables, like caterpillars or grasshopper locusts do.

They only cause damage to very few, fragile, luxury, miniature, ornamental-type trees, which are too weak to support their ovipositing [laying eggs].

I would recommend that people not panic. Don’t rush out to buy pesticides or postpone barbecues. It isn’t that bad at all. It’s fun! Enjoy the phenomena of the emergence. Kids especially will love them.

People will be able to remember the emergence as a milestone in their lives — 17 years from now they will remember the 2013 emergence and they’ll be able to wax nostalgic about what life was like back then.