Cicada researcher departs as insects start to die off

Courtesy of Christopher Burt

A cicada is shown on a tree in this 2016 photo.

As the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer are on the wane, just in case you’ve been wondering why a predicted appearance of periodical cicadas didn’t materialize, an expert on insects has some answers.

John Wenzel, director of the Carnegie Museums’ Powdermill Nature Reserve near Ligonier in Westmoreland County, taught entomology – the study of bugs – for nearly 20 years at Ohio State University.

Wenzel, who doesn’t live too far from his workplace, said in an interview this week that he was among those who were inundated by the buggy Brood VIII earlier this summer.

As a research station, the nature reserve hosted itinerant scholars who actually track and report sightings of the emerging insects far and wide on their Cicada Mania web page.

The size of the swarm numbered in the “thousands and thousands,” he said.

When warnings of Brood VIII cropped up earlier this year, what most news stories failed to report was that if you experienced cicada swarms in 2016, you weren’t going to see them this summer unless, like the Cicada Maniacs, you traveled.

Brood V was what we in Washington and Greene counties experienced in 1999 and 2016, the year that West Virginia University celebrated cicadas with a festival in Morgantown featuring science seminars, bug-eyed red balloon dooly boppers for kids, and insect edibles.

“Some people were inundated,” Wenzel said of this year’s brood. “There were places with enormous densities, and you can go not very far at all and find none.”

In the Pittsburgh area, the cicadas emerged “north of Route 8, Sewickley had a lot, and there was a pretty heavy band from Indiana to New Florence to Ligonier,” Wenzel continued. Cicada Mania listed infestations in Elizabeth and Round Hill Park in the Mon Valley and from Apollo and Blairsville to Yellow Creek State Park among their sightings.

The fact that a cicada brood emerges only once every 17 years makes them difficult to study, but in years one through 17, they’re showing up somewhere.

There was some talk among laymen attributing a lack of cicadas, colloquially known as “17-year locusts,” to some sort of blight.

“I don’t really think so,” Wenzel said of that theory, “although the insects’ long lifespan might be affected by long-term use of pestcides and insecticides.”

Development on land that formerly hosted the cicadas’ preferred habitat, large hardwoods such as maples and oaks, could also be a culprit.

“Someone clears that acreage and builds a house, that would be a disaster to them,” Wenzel said.

The Cicada Mania website mentioned the cool, wet spring as possibly dampening Brood VIII, but Wenzel actually measured soil temperature and found the bugs emerging at less than the publicized 64-degree threshold.

So if you missed the Brood VIII swarm, take heart.

There are still cicadas around, but they’re not the periodical variety.

“We have an awful lot of singing insects,” Wenzel said, among them, “the dog day cicada, because it comes out in August.”

Wenzel is good at onomatopoeia, the vocal imitation of what he called “acoustic insects.”

Dog day cicadas chirp a “long pish pish pish in daytime,” Wentzel said.

This is not to be confused with noise at nightfall, when katydids can be really loud, making what Wentzel said is a “chup chup chup.”

And then there are male tree crickets, which emit “a sustained high-pitched constant trill,” according to Wenzel’s description.

This curtain of clatter, of course, has a purpose, and it’s summer love.

“The males are calling females,” Wenzel said, and amidst this cacophony, “Somehow the females choose a male. You know how peacocks have the beautiful feathers? The males sing and somehow the females are judging them on that.”

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