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The symphony of cicadas may be coming to an end, but the impact of these insects is now visible. University of Missouri Extension offices are receiving calls and emails from homeowners reporting that many tree branches are turning brown and falling off.

“In the last few days, I have answered more than a dozen inquiries related to cicada damage,” said Hank Stelzer, state forestry specialist with MU Extension.

Unlike their annual cicada relatives, which emerge each July and August, adult periodical cicadas from Brood XIX have emerged from 13 years of life underground and are now mating. Female cicadas bore narrow slits in new branches to lay their eggs.

“Females lay their eggs in a series of slits in pencil-sized branches in trees,” said Tamra Reall, horticulture specialist with MU Extension. Each female can lay a total of 400 to 600 eggs.

After 6–10 weeks, the eggs hatch, the new nymphs fall from the trees, burrow into the soil, look for a suitable tree root to feed on and begin their 13-year development cycle.

“Cicadas use a variety of woody plants as hosts,” said Stelzer. “They prefer apple, hickory, maple and oak trees. They also attack birch, willow, linden and elm trees.”

Shrubs such as blueberries, roses, lilacs and forsythia can also be affected. Conifers are rarely chosen because their needles hinder egg laying and conifer resin can trap and kill the eggs.

Impact on trees

Damage to trees occurs when female leafhoppers lay their eggs in small slits on branches. Severely damaged branches can droop, preventing water and nutrients from reaching the leaves as the branch droops. This results in yellow or brown leaves, a phenomenon called “drooping.”

Some injured branches may not break off immediately, but injured areas are weak spots that can eventually break off during a summer storm or winter snow. “We’ll probably get reports this year and into 2025,” Stelzer said.

In some cases, wounds caused by female leafhoppers do not heal and can become a gateway for cankers or other problems that can affect the health of the tree and cause additional branches to die. However, healthy, mature trees are better able to tolerate leafhopper branch damage and can be treated more effectively with harmless natural pruning.

It is not necessary to remove visible leafhopper damage on these larger trees because dead branches will fall off and larger limbs will not be affected. For smaller, recently planted trees that show signs of leafhopper damage, it is best to consult a certified arborist to determine the best course of action, Stelzer said.

Benefits for the environment

Despite the “yuck” factor, decomposing periodicals do provide some benefits to trees and plants. Dead cicadas decompose quickly; most of the cicadas’ bodies are gone within a couple of weeks. Wings and exoskeletons may stick around a little longer. Benefits of periodicals include:

  • The exoskeletons of the nymphs and the carcasses of the adult animals can serve as natural fertilizer during their decomposition.
  • Improved food supply for wildlife, especially birds raising their young.
  • Soil aeration when the nymphs came out of the underground.
  • Naturally pruning the outer branches could result in more side branches and possibly more flowers and fruit in the coming years.

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