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A Guide to Singing Insects
We can hear insects singing in the trees, bushes, and fields, but it can be hard to see who is making all the noise. The article shows you insects that sing, and describes some of their habits.
Common Meadow Katydid
One of the most commonly heard insects that sing is the common meadow katydid, Orchelimum vulgare. You have probably seen katydids here and there—they are very common and widely distributed. Katydids are remarkable for their close resemblance to a leaf, complete with veins and stem; some tropical species have wing coverings that mimic the ragged edges and holes caused by caterpillar damage!
Like their relatives the grasshoppers, katydids are generally herbivorous. They undergo incomplete metamorphosis, which is to say they don't have caterpillars that spin cocoons. Immature katydids look a lot like a small version of the adults, and as they grow and molt (shed their skin), the main change is that their wings become more functional.
Katydids have a song that is familiar to anyone who has been outside on a warm summer night (which, hopefully, includes everyone). Listen to the video below, and you will almost certainly recognize the sound.
This insect with the strange name is one of the more commonly heard singing insects in the American South. It has a distinctive buzzing call that has been compared to electricity or radio static; up close, it can be distractingly loud.
This singing insect looks like a grasshopper, but is more closely related to katydids; it sings at night. It can be found as far south as the Caribbean and Central America.
Song of the Broad-Tipped Conehead
Why Do Insects Sing?
The simple answer is that insects sing to communicate with each other; humans are simply eavesdropping on their conversations.
In most insects, it's the males doing all the singing. And as is often true with humans, their reason for singing is to get the attention of the opposite sex. Attracting a mate to create offspring and perpetuate the species is the life mission of adult insects, and finding that special other insect takes up nearly all their time and energy.
Communicating over long distances is generally accomplished in two ways: through scent (pheromones), and in song. And since there are so many insects calling to their mates, having a distinctive song is essential.
Singing also serves to warn away other nearby males that belong to the same species. This kind of competition keeps males dispersed and may help the population expand.
The common true katydid, scientific name Pterophylla camellifolia, has many relatives throughout the United States, many of which also sing, especially at night. The song of this insect gives the katydid its common name: the loud, rasping, three-note song sounds like "ka-ty-did." There is no one actually named Katy in the story!
True katydids are good jumpers, but unlike other members of the group they do not often attempt to fly. They live in the tops of trees where their leaf-like wing coverings blend in perfectly with the leaves, protecting them from being spotted by predators such as birds.
True katydids have songs that vary from place to place, as explained in this excerpt from Wikipedia.com:
Four populations of this species can be distinguished by song characteristics:
- The two-, three-, or four-pulsed song of northern populations, as described above;
- The faster song with more pulses per phrase, often heard in large, synchronized choruses common to the Southeastern populations;
- The one- or two-pulsed song of Southwestern populations; and
- A song of 8 to 15 pulses heard only in central Iowa.
After katydids, tree crickets are the most commonly heard nighttime singing insect in North America. For such a small, fragile-looking insect, they can dial up the volume to a remarkable level. There are many kinds of tree cricket, but they all share some characteristics.
Tree crickets, like all crickets, have two pairs of wings. The front wings are tough and leathery, and serve to protect the insect's soft abdomen. This is similar to a beetle, and also moths, which use their upper wings to cover and protect their bodies.
The bodies of tree crickets are long and skinny, with large powerful legs used for jumping.
One Loud Cricket
Snowy Tree Cricket
How Do Insects Sing?
Insects that sing create sound in a few different ways. Cicadas, for example, have a specialized organ that has two curved plates called "tymbals." The insect pops these plates in and out at high speed, creating a very loud buzz. Each cicada species has its own specific buzz.
Crickets and grasshoppers, on the other hand, have spines on their hind legs that they rub against a hard plate on the abdomen. This ratcheting sound sounds quite different from a cicada's buzz, but serves the same purpose.
House crickets, scientific name Gryllus domesticus, is actually native to Asia, although at this point it has spread around the world. These insects have adapted to living in human habitations, and can often be heard singing from the corners, especially in the kitchen and around the fireplace.
House crickets take two to three months to complete their life cycle. They can survive cold weather in and around buildings, and lay their eggs in damp soil and corners. Immature ("baby") crickets look like smaller versions of the adults, without wings; they shed their skin as they develop.
House Cricket Song
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There are several kinds of field cricket, all the genus Gryllus. They are related to the house cricket, but as the name suggests, they are found outside.
Field crickets have the same life cycle as house crickets, as well as all crickets and grasshoppers: immatures look like small versions of the adult, sans wings.
Song of the Field Cricket
Grasshoppers are in the same large group as crickets; some crickets look a lot like grasshoppers, and vice-versa. There are many, many kinds of grasshoppers, and in general they all sing by rubbing spiny back legs against hard plates on the back of the body.
While crickets stay close to the ground and are not often seen, grasshoppers escape threats by leaping away. Walking through a field on a sunny, late-summer day will often create a moving wave of leaping grasshoppers, hurrying to to get out of your way.
These cicadas are the ones that you hear every year, singing loud in the tops of trees starting around the end of July; they are a familiar part of summer for many generations in the eastern parts of North America.
Cicadas create songs with the use of a "tympanum," as described above. This is a curved plate on the thorax that the insect vibrates to create a powerful buzz. Cicada songs, like all insect songs, are part of a strategy to attract a mate.
Adult female cicadas lay eggs in slits they cut into twigs on the high branches of trees. When the tiny larvae hatch out, they wriggle out of their eggs and drop down onto the ground below. They burrow down into the ground, where they feed on tree roots for years before they crawl to the surface and hatch out into the adult form.
Annual Cicada Song
These very large insects have the same natural history as annual cicadas, but they are remarkable for their truly amazing song. Giant cicadas produce a song that is different from the loud buzz generated by annual cicadas. The song of a giant cicada is a high-pitched, constant whine that sounds something like an alarm or whistle. Trying to sleep while a giant cicada has set up residence nearby can be an exercise in futility.
Giant Cicadas Singing
- Insects and Other Anthropods | Singing Insects - Space for Life Museum Montréal
- U.S. Awaits Chorus of Huge, 17-Year Cicada Hatch | Reuters
Remember what was happening 17 years ago? The Motorola flip phone was high-tech, Facebook was brand new, George W. Bush was president, and, in some parts of the United States, people could hear a symphony of the cicadas.
- Why Do Crickets Chirp? | EcoParent magazine
Learn about the sounds and songs that crickets make and have some chirping fun!
- Grasshoppers and Cattle Compete for Food in US Drought - CNN
- Snowy Tree Cricket | Songs of Insects
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 23, 2021:
Greenmind, this is very informative and educating. Thanks.