Cicadas Bugging You? Put Away That Insecticide

Entomologists say there are few excuses to destroy these insects.

cicadas mating in Georgia
Cicadas mating in North Georgia.

Nancy Hinkle

Depending on where you live, you might hear an incessant wailing right now. Step outside and you’ll see loads of discarded exoskeletons from Brood X cicadas. The insects themselves have bulging red eyes and massive veined wings, looking like something out of a sci-fi movie.

Because there are millions of them, cicadas either make people amazed or annoyed. Some who aren’t thrilled with these every-17-year visitors are reaching for insecticides. There are posts on social media and searches online offering suggestions for the best pesticides to rid your yard and garden of the pests.

Some suggest spraying your entire property with insecticides; others say it’s a better idea to try to spray the bugs directly.

But entomologists point out that there’s no reason to destroy the insects.

“Cicadas are perfectly harmless. They cannot bite. They don’t sting. They don't feed. They aren’t going to harm animals, wildlife, or people,” Nancy Hinkle, an entomology professor at the University of Georgia, tells Treehugger. “They are very beneficial. Nearly every animal eats cicadas. They are a great nutrient burst for nearly every type of wildlife.”

Raccoons, possums, turkeys, birds, deer, squirrels, and snakes all eat cicadas, she says. 

“We want the wildlife to eat the cicadas. It’s so beneficial. Each cicada is a nugget of nutritional goodness,” she says.

But when the cicadas are sprayed with insecticides, the animals that eat them are also harmed.

“There’s no reason to contaminate the environment with extra insecticide,” she says. “Anything that eats the cicadas is going to get poisoned by insecticide too.”

Insecticide may also wipe out other insects that are beneficial to the environment, such as bees.

“The use of pesticides to kill cicadas is hard to justify and generally not recommended. They are a mild nuisance due to the noise they produce, but it passes,” Connecticut chief scientist and entomologist Kirby Stafford tells Treehugger. “Since many are eaten by birds and other predators, indiscriminate spraying could certainly risk their exposure to the pesticides as well as many other ‘non-target’ beneficial insects.”

When Cicadas Harm Trees

Cicadas don’t harm mature trees, but when they are young, called their nymph stage, they eat plant roots. That can harm trees and other plants. So can cicada eggs.

“Young trees can be damaged as eggs are laid in slits cut in twigs and stems that can cause stem and twig dieback. Larger, healthy established trees can tolerate the damage,” Stafford says. “A grower with a newly planted large fruit orchard would be one of the cases where spraying might be needed, but timing the planting would be easy to avoid a 17-year emergence and netting can be used to protect individual small trees.”

He says netting would be more effective and likely less expensive. And it would be safer for other wildlife and the environment.

If the Bugs Bug You

If you want to protect your plants (or you’re just trying to have a picnic in your backyard) there are things you can do that don’t involve chemicals.

Protect young plants by covering their canopies with netting or cheesecloth. Although some nature experts warn that birds can get tangled up in these barriers.

Simply knock off cicadas from plants or trees with the spray from a water hose. You can also pick them off by hand.

Remember, they can’t bite!

View Article Sources
  1. Raupp, Michael J. "Return of Periodical Cicadas in 2021: Biology, Plant Injury and Management." TCI Magazine, 2021.

  2. Allen, Steve "Brood X: The Cicadas Are Back." Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, 2004.