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Love bugs are no picnic

May 02, 2004|by JULIE E. GREENE

julieg@herald-mail.com

SMITHSBURG - It's spring, that time of year when love is in the air.

Unfortunately, this year love also will be in the trees, on the fields, on your windshields and maybe in your hair if you get too close to the Brood X cicadas as they emerge from the ground for their once-every-17-years mating ritual.

Between the shell casings, the bugs and the screaming serenade, Tri-State area residents may want to put off any romantic picnics.

"It's a little hard to relax with that level of background noise," Smithsburg area orchardist Henry Allenberg said. "It's kind of like having a picnic in the middle of the beltway - a little more noise and confusion than you'd like."

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Allenberg remembers walking out to his peach and apple orchard in the foothills of South Mountain in the spring of 1987 to see bugs and bug shells everywhere. The 1 1/2- to 2-inch long black bugs even were crawling up the side of his house, he said.

"Their mating routine is deafening," said Allenberg, owner of Allenberg Orchards off Md. 491.

By mid-May, cicada nymphs are expected to emerge from the ground, crawl up trees and shed their skins, becoming adults, according to information from the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.

During the day, the males try to attract females by "singing." The sound, which can be heard through a link at www.urhome.umd.edu/newsdesk/scitech/cicadas.cfm, is produced from vibrating membranes beneath the wings.

"It's just like this whirring noise that's just incredibly annoying," Allenberg said.

As annoying as the noise is, it's the damage egg-laying females can inflict on trees that concerns orchardists the most.

The females cut grooves about 1.5 inches long in limbs the size of a pencil to lay 20 to 30 eggs, Allenberg said. The damaged limbs will break under the pressure of bearing fruit, so Allenberg will lose the fallen fruit and have to prune those limbs next year, he said.

The cicadas aren't expected to wipe out his crop, but if they repeat the damage they caused 17 years ago, Allenberg is looking at having 5 percent to 10 percent of his peach crop damaged.

That could translate into an $8,000 loss and, if some of his apple trees are hurt, the damage could total around $10,000, he said.

Allenberg plans to cover the 900 peach trees that have been planted on his orchard the last two years with plastic mesh to protect them from the cicadas' egg-laying.

The young trees represent almost a fourth of Allenberg's peach trees, but the older trees are bigger and produce most of his peaches, he said.

The older trees should more than recover with a year's growth, Allenberg said.

Apple tree limbs don't break as easily, so Allenberg doesn't expect the damage to his 9,000 apple trees to be as bad.

Brian Jacques said he had planted some trees before the 1987 cicada emergence. They survived, but he incurred some damage.

The cicadas may have cut his apple yield by as much as 10 percent in 1987 because of broken limbs, said Jacques, whose Edgemont Orchards Inc. is on South Mountain near Smithsburg.

If all other orchard conditions are ideal, the damage the cicadas could cause probably would be moderate, according to Allenberg and Jacques.

With two-thirds of his orchard bordered by woods, Jacques sprayed insecticide 17 years ago. This time, he's going to wait and see if he needs to spray his younger trees.

The problem with spraying is it can kill beneficial bugs such as ladybugs, Allenberg and Jacques said.

Jacques said he's held off on pruning some of his younger trees this year until after the cicadas are gone because he'll have to prune the broken limbs left by the females.

The cicadas are expected to emerge in the same areas they were 17 years ago.

According to The Herald-Mail archives, the cicadas emerged in the areas of Clear Spring, Smithsburg, the Potomac Fish and Game Club, Fort Frederick State Park and Greenbrier State Park.

Greenbrier held a cicada festival that year with songs written about the bugs and a contest to determine the best cicada chirp imitation, according to Herald-Mail archives.

The only thing Greenbrier is planning this year concerning the cicadas is a flier explaining what cicadas are and what all their commotion is about, Park Manager Dan Spedden said.

While the cicadas may have inspired creativity in 1987, Allenberg remembers how the bugs were "big and ugly and obnoxious."

"They're just big bumbling things that crash into everything and make noise," Allenberg said. The translucent skins they shed were left hanging on the trees or on the ground where they would crunch under footsteps, he said.

The only thing Jacques remembers from the 1970 cicada emergence, when he was 12, was seeing the bugs all over the ground after his father sprayed the orchard.

So many cicadas fell on the ground, it looked like the ground was moving, Jacques said.

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