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(Photo by M.B. Hersh)

THE 17-YEAR ITCH: Cicadas have taken temporary occupancy in Princeton. The "17-Year Locust" will continue to pester, annoy, and distract through June. But the critters are otherwise harmless to people or trees.
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Cicadas Swarm Through Princeton After Nearly 20 Years Underground

Matthew Hersh

There is a buzz in the air. The sound permeates through the early morning hours to late in the day. The cicadas are here: and you would be making noise too if you had spent the last 17 years underground.

Their 1970 appearance was enough to confound Bob Dylan, who, while receiving an honorary degree at Princeton University's commencement, almost skipped the ceremony because he could not take the constant drone of the insects. The incident was the inspiration behind "Day of the Locusts," a song he penned commemorating the incident.

The sudden appearance of trees teeming with cicadas has caught some residents off-guard. The insects are known for their bad eyesight, causing innocent bystanders to succumb to a perceived cicada "attack." But the underground dwellers are simply looking for a tree, a utility pole, a bush, or anything upright to latch onto.

While cicadas make a yearly appearance, this particular family is known as "Brood X," and makes its appearance every 17 years.

"This is where you're going to see your highest volume of cicadas," said Greg O'Neil, Princeton Township arborist and open space manager.

Princeton is particularly vulnerable to cicada infestation because while underground, cicadas feed off tree roots, Mr. O'Neil said, adding that the more trees there are, the more cicadas will be in your backyard.

"A lot of Princeton's land is undisturbed, so you're going to see [some of] your heaviest concentration here," Mr. O'Neil warned.

But fear not, their goal is simple: mate and deposit their eggs into the earth in about a week. Simple. No questions asked. That is until they impose their morning song on often unwelcoming human ears.

After birth, the nymphs bury themselves about 18 to 24 inches in the soil where they begin their subterranean existence. While they are typically full grown after the seventh or eighth year, they continue to dwell in the depths until the spring of the 17th year.

Otherwise known as the "17-Year Locust," the cicadas are relatively harmless to the areas trees.

"Treatment-wise, there really isn't anything you can do," Mr. O'Neil said. "You just have to put up with the problem."

Mr. O'Neil said the heaviest infestation occurs throughout June, but the damage the trees will incur is minimal.

"You'll start seeing a lot of dead twigs on the outer canopy of the tree, especially near oak and maple [trees]," he said. But the tree will recover, the arborist assured.

"The damage they do isn't all that severe, it might look it, but it's not all that bad," he added.

The arborist did recommend covering very young trees with chessecloth to prevent damage, but for more mature trees, the cicadas actually provide natural pruning.

Most notable about this particular brood is how the "unearthed" cicadas molt their nymphal skins. The shedding process, which takes about an hour, can result in an exoskeletal crunch under the feet of unsuspecting souls.

While the shells eventually biodegrade naturally, Mr. O'Neil said street-sweeping will occur as needed.

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