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The Differences Between Cicadas and Locusts

Scarla is a curious cat, passionate about learning new things in the natural world and sharing what she finds!

A locust in mid-jump

A locust in mid-jump

Locusts and Cicadas Are Not the Same

People often confuse locusts and cicadas. In some areas, cicadas are even known colloquially as locusts, or 13- or 17-year locusts. Despite their apparent similarity and the confusion surrounding the name, cicadas and locusts are entirely different animals.

Cicadas are from the order Homoptera, which they share with plant lice and leaf hoppers. There are over 2,500 different species of cicadas that live on every continent except for Antartica, and they reproduce in cycles, whereby certain generations re-emerge after periods of 2, 5, or even 17 years (which is why the term 17-year locust exists).

Locusts, however, are grasshoppers that have become more hive-like in behavior and joined a swarm. Thus, the term describes not a species, but a phase or state of grasshopper.

There are 11,000 different species of grasshoppers, which are in the order Orthoptera, along with crickets and katydids. To be more specific, they generally fall into the family Acrididae (like rainbow grasshoppers and horse lubbers).

Video: Amazing Cicada Life Cycle

  • Physical Appearance

Cicadas have a more robust appearance than grasshoppers, with a shorter, wider body. Like I mentioned earlier, many different varieties of cicadas exist, each of them distinct in their coloring: the Magicicada, or the 17-year cicadas that made news in 2013, are characterized by their black bodies, red eyes, and wing veins, while dog day cicadas are known for their light green coloring and clear wings.

In all varieties of cicada, however, the wings always extend noticeably past their bodies.

  • Behavior

Cicadas do not swarm and pose much less of a threat to vegetation, especially crops, than locusts do. However, they can create damage to several cultivated crops, shrubs, and trees, since females lay their eggs in branches and twigs.

Cicadas, both in their nymph and their adult state, feed on tree sap through a long proboscis. They do not bite or sting for defense, but if you let a cicada rest on you for too long, it may think your body is a tree and try to feed on you.

Male cicadas sing to attract mates, for which they have three different courtship songs. The songs are specific to their species. They also have several other calls, including alarm calls. Cicadas are known for their loud songs, which can reach such high decibels that their songs are even capable of damaging human ears.

Unlike the locust, cicadas produce their sound by contracting their abdomen, which has tymbals on both sides. The male is the primary producer of sound, and its almost hollow abdomen acts as a sound box, amplifying their call.

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A cicada husk

A cicada husk

  • Reproduction and Life Cycle

Cicadas have a fascinating and complex reproduction system compared to locusts. After mating, females make a slit in a twig with her ovipostor. This is where she will lay her eggs. Once they hatch, the nymphs drop and bury themselves underground, feeding on deciduous tree roots while maturing.

The amount of time they take to mature depends on the particular variety. Magicicadas remain in nymph state for 13 to 17 years. Dog day cicadas are more common in the United States, and they take two to five years to mature into an adult. As an adult, they only live for several months, enough time to mate and start the life cycle again.

Video: Locusts and The Great North American Locust Plague

  • When is a grasshopper a locust?

Like mentioned above, grasshoppers and locusts are the same animals. Some grasshopper species are known as locusts when they reach high population densities under certain environmental conditions, changing colour and behaviour and forming swarms even though they are normally solitary creatures.

The change in behavior can be triggered by certain environmental conditions (usually drought followed by rapid vegetation growth), which causes overcrowding, stimulating the production of serotonin in grasshoppers' brains. This, in turn, can cause a set of big changes: the grasshoppers change color, start to breed abundantly, and become very gregarious. When their populations get dense enough, they become nomadic, traveling in bands or swarms.

  • Physical Appearance

Grasshoppers are much more slender than locusts and longer in shape. Their hind legs are built to be able to jump, and their wings are not as long as their body. Grasshoppers have many varieties of colors. Some are leaf green, others brown, and some are even multicolored.

  • Behavior

Grasshoppers are plant eaters and can become pests of crops such as cereals, vegetables, and pasture. This is especially true in the locust state when they form swarms of millions.

Some species of grasshoppers do make sounds that are easily heard. However, grasshoppers are not nearly as loud as cicadas, nor do they sing as extensive a variety of songs. They create their 'songs' by rubbing either their wings together or their wings against their legs.

  • Reproduction and Life Cycle

Grasshopper reproduction is much simpler than that of the cicadas: They lay their eggs in the soil, and the nymphs hatch during the spring. After several molts, the locust becomes an adult. Locusts lifespans vary, but they can go through several generations in just a year.


Wyatt on April 12, 2018:

Rodent images

darlene on July 05, 2016:

why do they call them cicadas

terri on June 04, 2016:

Im in WV and they r deafening! And there r literally thousands.I remember locusts when I was young.they were huge and all over trees and grounds.interesting the difference between them and cicadas.I dont like neither.but I hate is locusts mentioned in revelation not cicadas since cicadas do not stin.weird whatever their divine purpose :-) thanks very intetesting .

Linda Robinson from Cicero, New York on May 31, 2016:

Good Morning ScarlaBlack So nice meeting you and have to say that your hub about bugs is remarkable. There are so many fascinating descriptions and super content. Bugs have always been an intriguing topic, but you covered it all so well. Just a terrific hub and I look forward to following you. And reading more of your excellent writing. Linda

AlvintheLady on October 05, 2015:

I didn't know grasshoppers were pokemon. The more you know. What region can you find these in? What level do they evolve at?

Hunter on August 03, 2015:

Where I live we get them every year... I don't know how, but every year we have cicadas, I live in carlock Illinois.

AlteredEcho on August 01, 2015:

I grew up in Indiana where Cicadas were called locusts. Everyone referred to the husks in the trees as "locust shell". I, of course, researched this later and discovered the correction.

I now live in Kentucky and a friend of mine and I just had a somewhat heated, amazingly over such a small topic, debate about the "jar fly" on the back porch. Apparently, that is what they call Cicada here.

I was fascinated to discover, through this article, that Cicada are actually singing through their abdomen rather than playing a violin like locusts do. If you have ever picked up a Cicada and they have buzzed those large wings, I had always assumed that was how they made their music.

Thank you for this article and the great information...Ancora Imparo

Janella on December 10, 2014:

I live in Alamogordo, N.M. I have always wondered what kind of bug in the trees was making that loud buzzing sound. Thank you for the pics and the info.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on August 22, 2013:

I always enjoy natural history hubs like this. I remember in my youth in Arizona we had a cicada summer, and we were always picking the cicada exoskeletons off of the trees and throwing them at girls. They make a tremendous amount of racket when they are in full bloom; the combined whine of the cicadas at midday can be deafening. I never realized that locusts were actually grasshoppers on steroids. Thank you for enlightening me. I enjoyed your hub!

Mary Wickison from Brazil on July 16, 2013:

I thought you had made a typo when you wrote 17 years. That is so interesting.

I am in Brazil and the insect life still astounds me even after 4 years. We have grasshoppers that are huge, bigger than some of the birds here!

Haley Booker-Lauridson (author) from GA on May 21, 2013:

I don't know for sure, but I think you are talking about cicadas. Some of the key info was that you found the shells on the trees, which are the cicadas main form of food, especially as a nymph (Wikipedia has a really cool gif of a cicada leaving its old exoskeleton on the tree) and that they are loud. The cicadas talked about recently on the news are called Magicicadas, which have been basically dormant for 17 years, and I only know of dog day cicadas which have a 2-5 year cycle, but I think there are more varieties which could definitely be annual. Hope this helps!

Barbara Badder from USA on May 21, 2013:

What we call locusts must not be a locust, because they don't look like that. They shed a shell of their body around August on the trees. Are these locusts? They are loud. Hearing them was always a signal to us it was about time to return to school. Maybe we just have a different kind here??? It is a yearly event.

Haley Booker-Lauridson (author) from GA on May 21, 2013:

Thank you for reading and commenting! I'm quite excited to hear the cicadas. My only first hand experience with them is the dog day variety literally dropping from the sky!

Kathy from The beautiful Napa Valley, California on May 21, 2013:

Thank you for a wonderfully informative hub. I moved to SE Kansas where Cicadas abound from around July to Sept. or Oct. First year there, we had a "13 year" breakout..this year; it is suggested there'll be the infamous and cacaphonous SEVENTEEN year "eruption." The noise is deafening but the excitement is overwhelming and interesting. Locals refer to the cicadas as locusts but admit to knowing the difference; it's just a matter of habit. UP Useful Interesting.

Debra Allen from West By God on May 21, 2013:

Thank you for all this great information. We are supposed to be getting the 17 year cicadas this year. I remember a 5 year cicada that we got back in 2003-4 or 5 and they were bad. You could still hear them ieven if you closed all your windows. Deafening was more like it and it lasted about 2 weeks. Awful! I am spreading this around on all my FB groups! I also rate it up and useful and interesting.

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