Cicada Facts, Folklore, and Photos
When cicadas decide to sing, the entire neighborhood echos with a shrill keening sound from the plague or brood chirping in perfect harmony. By June every year, our backyard is a haven for these winged insects whose empty shells become a regular feature anywhere they can attach themselves.
Their multitudes of brethren line the tree branches, fence, walls, steps, porch railing, the dog's water bowl and other surfaces where they can attach for their metamorphic transmutation of molting. Once firmly attached, they begin to emerge like something out of a science fiction movie.
Their invasion this year has been like a plague of locusts, indeed, something right out of the Old Testament. As I make my way along the path to the garden shed, I dodge the sticky strings of a low lying spider web and duck the swoop of a live cicada as it relocates to a different tree.
Buzzing nearby, the sound of a cicada killer wasp sends me back inside the safety of the house.
Cicada Killer Wasp
- The dog day cicada emerges each year in mid-summer.
- Periodical cicada, aka Seventeen Year Cicada are known for their emergence every 13 or 17 years in broods.
- Cicadas are less active around dawn and in the early morning.
- High pitched screeching is made by the males trying to attract females.
- Collections of Cicadas are called broods, a cloud or a plague.
- Females deposit their eggs in tree bark or branches.
- Life spans above ground range between five to six weeks.
- Come in colors of green, black, red, silver, yellow, gold
- Size: .75" to 2.25"
- Features: Five eyes, two large on either side of the head, three ocelli between them thought to detect light and dark
- People and animals such as dogs, squirrels, turkeys, birds, even fish eat these insects.
- Shells have been used in traditional medicine for centuries.
Exoskeletons on the Porch Rail
Chinese Medical Uses of the Husks
Cicada molting, or Chan Tui has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for centuries where it serves as a symbol of immortality. Jade replicas of the cicada were known to be placed in the mouth of a deceased person much like the scarab in ancient Egypt.
The husk or exoskeleton of the cicada is harvested and considered for use as an anticonvulsant, sore throat and fever reliever as well as a treatment for allergies and sinus support.
Cicadas Molting on the Trees
Regarded by some as a powerful symbol of rebirth, these odd insects appear in mid-summer, buzzing and clicking away. Their tiny newly hatched nymphs crawl down tree trunks and live in holes in the ground or they fall from the branches where their mothers deposited hundreds of eggs. Some species live underground for nearly two decades.
Some cultures eat this insect preferring the meatier female. Others, such as the Chinese, use its discarded shell in traditional medicine.
How a Cicada Makes Noise
Each year around the end of April, we begin to see an influx of these strange looking creatures who've made their home in the trees. Luckily, they don't sting or even bite like some of the other insects out here.
They play their repetitious tune like a band of tiny kazoo players; an eerie sound that goes on for hours. Even my dogs become spooked by their loud keeeeening whine that continues uninterrupted, like a choir sustaining a single note indefinitely.
Not surprisingly, the males produce this noise with vibrations that come from membranes located on their abdomens. Different calls are hard to distinguish but theirs is a language of its own, whether expressing alarm or attracting a mate. Here is an example of cicada song.
According to the National Geographic, "When young cicada nymphs hatch from their eggs, they dig themselves into the ground to suck the liquids of plant roots. They spend several early life stages in these underground burrows before surfacing as adults. The process varies in length but often takes a number of years."
With over 3,000 different species which have evolved independently over millions of years emerging at a variety of intervals, some cicadas appear every 13 years, some at 17 year intervals and some, like the ones in my back yard known as annuals, emerge every year.
These Flying Bugs are Harmless
A study done in 2004 in Brazil suggests there is a strategy to their emergence during years that fall within prime numbers like 13 or 17. Perhaps it is to keep the predators guessing.
In Texas, there are over forty (40) species including the Superb Green Cicada (Tibicen superba - Fitch 1855) and the Texas Dog Day species (Tibicen texanus - Metcalf) shown in the photos.
Periodical Cicada Hierarchy
- Phylum: Anthropoda
- Class: Insecta
- Order: Hemiptera
- Common name: Cicada
- Family: Cicadidea
- Genus: Magicicada
- Species: Septemdecim
- Type: Invertebrates
- Diet: Herbivores
- Predators: Cicada Killer Wasps
An Entomologist is a person who studies or is an expert in the branch of zoology concerned with insects. Over 800,000 species of insects have been discovered.
The upside to their annual invasion is that their offspring attract birds which eat this tasty insect. This morning there was a family of brilliantly red Cardinals enjoying a feast in my back yard.
In the picture, a brand new nymph leaves its molted exoskeleton to take flight. He hangs easily upside down on the back porch before testing out his brand new lacy wings.
Emerging From His Shell
On the other hand, these odd insects attract the not-so pleasant professional Cicada killer, the wasp which uses these insects as a haven for their own reproductive cycle. The Giant Cicada Killer Wasp is huge, measuring nearly two inches.
Predators to Cicadas
Although cicada wasps rarely sting humans, preferring to use their venom to paralyze their prey, their proximity can be alarming. They are large black and pale yellow wasps ranging in size from one and a half to two inches in length.
They also dig dime-sized holes in dirt or lawns into which they drag their paralyzed victims and lay an egg before closing the burrow. The cicada will serve as food to the killer wasp larvae which will emerge in 10-11 months.
Between swatting and ducking, I yearn for the coolness of fall when these pesky guys will once again grow quiet and remain in their dark homes underground.
Cicada Song in my Backyard
- Cicadamania dot com
- National Geographic
- Texas A and M, Agrilife via Citybugs.TAMU.edu
© 2018 Peg Cole