Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Synchronization

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
17 Year Cicada adult

The Summer Olympics, Tokyo 2020, officially “The Games of the XXXII Olympiad,” begin July 23 and end Aug. 8. The opening ceremony will be broadcast live beginning at 5:55 a.m. Friday morning, before sunrise at 6:30 a.m.! The ceremonies will be part of the Today Show on NBC, so set your TIVOs or turn on your television and grab a cup of coffee to watch the Olympians. Spectators will not be allowed during most competitions due to an uptick in the Delta variant. The water sports are my favorite. The synchronized swimming teams (name changed to artistic swimming in 2017 with mixed reviews) have me gasping for breath as they perform most moves under water.

Speaking of synchronization, what about the impressive 17-year cicada event? You’ve seen pictures of Brood X, but not here in Oklahoma. Our 17-year cicadas, Brood II, will appear in 2030. We do have the annual green species which appear each summer. Actually, there are 35 annual and 5 periodical cicada species that live in Oklahoma. They are not locusts. Locusts belong to the grasshopper family with chewing mouthparts. Cicadas are true bugs with piercing mouthparts for getting fluids from plants and animals.

Those folk from New York down to Georgia west to the Mississippi River were treated to the largest and most widespread cicada emergence, which began late April into May. The 17-year cicadas, now finishing up their coming out party on the East Coast, are periodical cicadas. The immature nymphs spend nearly their entire life underground sucking xylem fluid with their beaks to get liquid refreshment from the roots of deciduous trees. Xylem sap contains mainly water with dissolved organic and inorganic chemicals. This eventually flows upward from the roots into stems and leaves of the tree. In return, the nymphs aerate the soil and supply nutrients to the tree roots. When the nymphs have reached the mature stage, they dig their way up in unison to the soil surface and wail until the soil temperatures reach 64 degrees. On cue, they all emerge and climb up the nearest tree in perfect synchrony, just like artistic/synchronized swimming teams.

17 year Cicada molting

The nymphs find a good place on the tree or shrub to shed their exoskeletons (skins). This takes one to two hours. Once their wings have plumped and their body dried, the goals of adult cicadas are to eat, mate, and lay eggs. FYO, the adult stage of a winged insect is an imago and often, adult cicadas are called imagoes. They only live two to four weeks.

The male cicada sings his little heart out. Not really. He vibrates his tympanic membranes that function as mini-drums inside his nearly hollow abdomen. The membranes move rapidly in and out to emit that loud cicada buzz song we all know. A few species can break 105 decibels, and one Australian cicada tops 120 decibels, enough to harm your ears. The males group together in very loud chorus centers. The females, unless deaf, are attracted to all that noise. Male and female cicadas get together (let’s give them some privacy) and soon the female will begin to deposit rice-shaped eggs into a groove made with her ovipositor in a tree stem the size of a pencil. She’ll carve out several slits, laying about 20 eggs in each; nearly 600 eggs by the time she’s done and totally exhausted.

The grooves often kill the branch ends, a condition known as flagging. It looks a tad unsightly, but doesn’t kill a healthy tree. Eggs take six to eight weeks to hatch. The baby cicada (looks like a small white ant) feeds on tree sap until it falls to the ground ready to search for roots. It often starts with grass roots and works its way to the tree roots. This becomes home for years. The periodical cicadas may be in the ground from 2 to 17 years depending on the species. They don’t hibernate, but stay quite active making tiny tunnels and eating.

Flagging on tree

Knowing you have periodical cicadas could determine when you plant new trees and shrubs. Use care in plant selection if a brood is emerging within the next four years. On the other hand, the turkeys, blue jays and other birds wait for the annual or perennial flying protein packages to appear. Either the bugs are picked out of the sky or crunched right on the ground, probably still buzzing.

The 13-year Brood XIXs are set to emerge in Oklahoma in 2024: the 13-year Decim Magicada trecidim, the 13-year Cassini Magicada tredecassini, and the 13-year Decula Magicada tredecula. The cicadas often appear one to three years earlier.

Our 17-year cicadas (Magicada septendecula) in Brood II will come out in 2030, Brood IV in 2032 and Brood VIII in 2036. These also may emerge earlier. We’ll get to see if our 17-year cicadas are as plentiful and stunning as those on the East Coast this year.

Cannibal and Fin squaring off

The East Coast borders the Atlantic Ocean. Oklahoma has wells, rivers, creeks and stock ponds. Water. The elixir of life. Key ingredient in the Summer Olympics as well as my fish tanks. The plastic plants were disintegrating. Why not try real plants? One for each of the two fish tanks. Cannibal, the only goldfish in one tank, nibbled to death all his tank mates except one little multi-colored goldfish. It survived. Cannibal hadn’t had time to trim the top dorsal fin, one swimming fin and the tail before I removed the poor little traumatized fish. Fin was put it into its own glass tank. The fish has to launch itself upward to get food and bangs around the sides, but otherwise is still alive and finning.

Fin loves his plant anchored in gravel. Swims around or just sits in it. Cannibal has ripped out his plant three times and is currently ripping it to shreds. The plant is floating on the surface. He’s waiting for me to replant what’s left of it again. Let the summer games begin!

Becky Emerson Carlberg

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.