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The first Meimuna opalifera cicadas were reported in central Japan as far back as 2011. Photo: Shutterstock

How cicadas from China invaded Japan – on broomsticks

  • A researcher has discovered that brooms imported from China – carrying cicada eggs in the wood – were not quarantined at ports
  • This allowed the Meimuna opalifera species to gain a foothold in Japan, joining other invasive species such as snapping turtles and raccoons

There’s a new, invasive species of Chinese cicada in Japan – and researchers have confirmed it hitched a ride across borders on broomsticks.

The first Meimuna opalifera cicadas were reported in central Japan as far back as 2011, but no one had previously been able to determine how a species native to bamboo thickets in China had made its way there undetected. The species has since proliferated and spread to other parts of Japan, where it appears to be thriving.

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The creatures’ route into the country has just been discovered by Toru Usui, an insect researcher, who realised that wooden brooms imported from China were not required to undergo quarantine procedures at ports. Instead, they are sold to garden centres and hardware shops – carrying cicada eggs secreted within narrow slits in the wood.

When the brooms are left outside, the eggs are able to emerge and drop to the ground, where they burrow beneath the surface as larvae and, in the case of Meimuna opalifera, feed on the juice of bamboo roots, the Asahi newspaper reported.

Wooden brooms from China are not required to undergo quarantine in Japanese ports. Photo: Shutterstock

While Japan’s domestic species of cicada do not feed on bamboo and there is no indication the insects from China are threatening to take over their habitats, there is concern as Meimuna opalifera are considered a pest in China and may cause damage to Japanese bamboo groves.

“The transfer of insects on goods is a serious problem because these species have evolved in areas where they have natural predators that keep a balance,” said Dr Koichi Goka, head of the Invasive Species Research Team at Japan’s National Institute for Environmental Studies.

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“But when they come into a new habitat, they often have no natural enemies, so they are able to increase their numbers very rapidly. In many cases, these invasive species can have an enormous impact on local agriculture, flora and fauna and human society.”

Kevin Short, a professor who specialises in environmental education at the Tokyo University of Information Sciences and a resident of Chiba Prefecture, said there were numerous examples of non-indigenous species that had made Japan their home – many of which were introduced deliberately.

“The most obvious example is the civet cat, which was brought into Japan around the 1850s to be farmed for its fur, but inevitably escaped and have thrived in the wild, where they are to blame for enormous damage to farmers’ crops,” he said.

Meimuna opalifera, the Japanese cicada. Photo: Shutterstock

“Here in Chiba, there is a problem with the American raccoon, which were bought as pets [in the 1970s] when there was a popular animated television show on with a raccoon called Rascal. He was so cute that suddenly everyone wanted a raccoon.

“When they’re young, they really are cute. But by the time they get to 10 months old, they’re big, they’re highly aggressive and they are too much of a handful. So people took them out into the countryside and dumped them.”

It’s a similar story with the snapping turtles – which can grow to weigh 10kg and can take off a person’s finger with a bite – that now infest many lakes and ponds around Japan. One local authority in Chiba has dealt with its invasion of snapping turtles by hosting events to catch the creatures, followed by demonstrations where people can learn how to cook turtle soup.

Other species that have settled in, often to the detriment of local wildlife, include American crayfish and bullfrogs; black bass that were meant to provide entertainment for sport fishermen, but bred more rapidly than anticipated; the green anole lizard; and fire ants, which recently entered the country in shipping containers and appear to have already gained a firm foothold.