Cicadas in General

Periodical Cicadas
Annual or "Dog Day" Cicadas

Cicadas are insects, noted mostly for their distinctive vocal calls, which are among the loudest of any insect sound. They are in the order Homoptera (along with the leafhoppers, treehoppers, aphids, and spittlebugs) and make up the family Cicadidae, for those of you who are into taxonomy. There are several genera, but Tibicen and Magicicada are the two most prominent ones in most of the United States. They have a unique life cycle, spending most of their lives underground as nymphs. During this nymphal period, which can last up to 17 years, depending on the species, a cicada feeds on juices of tree roots, which it attaches itself to by means of a food tube. In the final phase of a cicada's life cycle, the insect emerges from the ground, preferrably at dusk, finds an upright support to climb up, and sheds its nymphal skin. Its tiny wingpads expand and dry to form wings, and by daybreak, the insect will be able to fly around. The cicada's adult life lasts less than three weeks, but in this time, it must find a mate and lay its eggs--and avoid its many predators.

There are two basic types of cicada: the Annual or Dogday Cicadas, which appear every summer, and the Periodical Cicadas or Magicicada, which emerge once every 13 years in Arkansas (Most broods emerge every 17 years).

Cicadas are very easy to distinguish between sexes. The male's abdomen has a large resonating chamber in which there are a pair of sound-producing organs. This chamber is usually covered by two large plates visible on the cicada's underside at the base of the abdomen. The female's abdomen is usually shorter and more pointed and has a blade-like ovipositor that is visible near the tip of the abdomen on the underside. It will be tucked inside a groove when not in use, but will still be visible.

The cicada's chief predators, birds, are diurnal, which is surely the reason the cicada nymphs exit the ground at night. A newly emerged adult cicada is soft, weak, vulnerable, and completely unable to fly away from danger. The insect will be protected by the hours of darkness as its exoskeleton and wings harden and its strength returns.

Cicada nymph

The cicada is best known for its song, which the male produces with its sound-producing membranes located in the abdomen. Each species has its own characteristic song, which can be anything from a clicking or chirping to a loud buzzing. The primary function of the song is to attract females, making it easier for the insects to find a mate. Once a male cicada has mated, he will die, his mission in life complete. The famale will lay eggs shortly after mating, then she will die as well.

There are two very common misconceptions about cicadas. One is that they are often known as locusts, although this is actually incorrect. The term "locust" more correctly refers to certain species of short-horned migratory grasshoppers. The term "locust" being applied to cicadas actually derived from early settlers in North America mistaking the phenomenally dense Magicicada emergences for the Biblical swarms of the Migratory Locust. The fact that Magicicada tredecim's and M. septendecim's call sort of resembles the word "Pharaoh" didn't help matters. They neither realized the insect's synchronicity nor that it didn't devour foliage. Another misconception about cicadas is that the adult does not eat. This is not the case at all. Adult cicadas use their beaklike food tubes to extract juices from twigs and other plant stems. I have experimented with this personally. Captive adult cicadas not provided with live plant stems on which to feed lived no longer than three days. Most lived no more than two. In contrast, cicadas that WERE provided with branches lived much longer. Most lived 5 to 8 days. My best one died on its 17th day.

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