Cicadas damage blueberry patch at Western Pa. farm

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GIBSONIA, Pa. — Dave King was looking forward to a good blueberry harvest — until the cicadas hit.

King is co-owner of Harvest Valley Farms, a 160-acre retail produce farm on the border of Butler and Allegheny counties. They planted the patch six years ago. This year looked to be a promising one.

Doing damage

At first, King couldn’t figure out what was causing broken branches on the blueberry bushes.

“I thought it was just the wind or something,” he said.

King researched the issue online but still couldn’t find anything to identify his problem. Then, he went back to the patch and took a closer look.

He saw some cicadas, but didn’t think much of it until he saw they were laying eggs in the small branches of the bushes.

“It looked like a cat scratched the stem,” he said. “It had holes all through it.”

Cicada spring

Millions of periodical cicadas from Brood VIII began emerging from the ground in southwestern Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and the tip of West Virginia’s panhandle in mid-May.

While cicadas pose no threat to humans, animals or field crops, they do cause damage from laying eggs.

Female cicadas deposit eggs into twigs of small trees and shrubs. They do this by using a saw-like device at the end of their abdomen, called an ovipositor, to cut into the bark to make a pocket in the wood, according to the Penn State Extension.

The cicada eggs hatch six to seven weeks later and the resulting nymphs drop off into the soil. The nymphs then feed off of the plant’s roots for the next 17 years until they emerge again, according to the Penn State Extension.

The structural damage from the egg laying can cause branches to break off, especially if the branches are laden with ripening blueberries.

Poor timing

“The timing with the cicadas doing their thing, it was right when the blueberries are turning and the fruits are getting heavier. And we had all the rain so the berries were giant,” King said. “The weight of the berries, it snapped the branches.”

The blueberry patch at Harvest Valley Farms has 600 plants, which is not much compared to fruit farms. But King said for them, it was a substantial investment for that type of crop.

Usually they put up bird netting trellis on the whole patch, but after he didn’t see bird damage this year, they skipped that step. King assumes now that the birds were too full from eating cicadas to go after the blueberries.

The bird netting could have helped deter the cicadas. In 17 years, he’ll be sure to put up cicada control netting, King said.

Planning ahead

But before that, they need to prune the damaged and infected canes to get as many cicada eggs as they can out of the patch, King said.

“Otherwise you’ll be netting them into your patch, and they’ll feed on blueberry roots for 17 years,” he said.

King said they were able to get a decent harvest the first time in mid-June, but the harvest on June 21 was not good. There were a lot of mummified berries, he said. The real loss to the farm, though, is the time and cost involved with pruning.

“That’s where the loss comes from. The cost of the labor to do that type of pruning at this time of year whenever we’re not set up for that,” he said. “We should be doing a million other things instead of that.”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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