The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Planning around cicadas in the orchard

Cicada twig damageI learned my next lesson on timing the hard way.  In 2012, periodic cicadas crawled out of the ground and regaled us with their ocean-like symphony.  I was intrigued by the natural occurrence and enjoyed feeding these protein-rich insects to our chickens, so at first I thought the periodic cicadas were a boon to our farm.  Then I saw this the damage pictured to the left.

It turns out that cicadas lay their eggs in tender twigs of young trees, and seem to preferentially choose fruiting species over wild saplings.  When the young cicadas hatch from their twig homes, the nymphs drop to the ground and tunnel down to feed on the tree's roots.  While the root sucking may be a long-term problem, the real issue is that the nymphs damage fruit-tree twigs so much while coming out of their eggs that the branches often break off and die.

Of course, even cicadas have natural predators, but the insects' periodic nature is designed to keep predation to a minimum.  Cicada killers and other animals that preferentially feed on cicadas can only survive at low population levels most of the time since their food is Cicada killerscarce.  Every 13 to 17 years, the periodic cicadas come out of the ground and provide a feast, but by then, the predator levels are so low that the majority of the cicadas survive untouched.  That's why we have to get a bit more wily when dealing with these insects—periodic cicadas have outwitted their natural enemies and we can't count on help from nature.

The short-term solution to cicada damage is to net adult cicadas away from the twigs as soon as you hear periodic cicadas calling.  But smarter orchardists also plan around cicada cycles.  If you go to, you can choose your state and county and then find out when periodic cicadas have emerged in your region recently.  Add the appropriate number of years to those emergence dates and you'll know when the next brood will be out looking for baby fruit trees.

In a perfect world, you'd plant fruit trees no more than two years before cicada-emergence dates since cicadas aren't as interested in older trees.  Orchardists also choose not to winter prune fruit trees during a year when periodic cicadas are due to emerge, knowing the cicadas will do some of their pruning for them.  That's true permaculture gardening at work!

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Naturally Bug-Free!  If so, you can download the ebook for $1.99 on Amazon by clicking the link above.  Or just wait for another excerpt tomorrow on the blog.

This post is part of our Naturally Bug-Free lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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This post is SO helpful! I've been trying to establish an orchard since we bought our home in 2008. 70% of the trees we've planted have died, and I've often seen damage like you show in the picture. I had no idea that is what it was from. I thought it was frost damage. There has also been a great deal of cicada activity on our property. I am off to check out the link you provided so we can address this issue as effectively as possible. :-D
Comment by Michelle Thu Feb 13 13:21:44 2014

Hi Anna - your comment about feeding the cicadas to the chickens made me wonder if you also bring the piles of winter-killed bees from your hives to your hens?


Comment by Karen B Thu Feb 13 17:24:06 2014
Karen --- I tried to feed some of the dead bees to our chickens one year, but they seemed uninterested. I don't know if it was age of the dead bees, or just the fuzzy/sting factor.
Comment by anna Thu Feb 13 19:01:57 2014
Shouldn't that be "plant more than two years"?
Comment by aggie Sat Feb 15 08:08:05 2014
Aggie --- Thanks for catching that! I'll have to fix it in the book. :-)
Comment by anna Sun Feb 16 13:17:10 2014

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