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The Singing Bugs Of Summer

September 4, 2013 - Jane Whitmore
When I came out the front door of my house one day last week, I noticed a brown blob on the brick. Upon closer inspection, it was not a blob but an insect shell. I put the shell in a plastic bag and brought it to work. Though I couldn’t remember if it was a locust or a cicada, we Googled both and it was indeed a cicada. Since, I have found more abandoned exoskeletons all clinging stubbornly to the brick on the south side of my house. One day I looked up and there was a cicada just morphing from its shell -- on the edge of the brick by the front door. Its wings were visible, but I didn’t get close enough to see its head. From what I have read, they have red eyes. Later that morning I went to Emerald Oaks to take a photo. When I mentioned the cicada, one wise resident said “When you hear the cicada sing, it is six weeks until the first frost.” That would make it mid-October. Yikes! I am compelled to share some facts about cicadas: • The name is a direct derivation of the Latin cicada, meaning “tree cricket.” • Cicadas live in temperate-to-tropical climates where they are among the most-widely recognized of all insects, mainly due to their large size and unique sound. • The cicada’s claim to fame (in case you literally haven’t heard it) is its singing. The high-pitched song is actually a mating call belted out by males. Each species has its own distinctive song that only attracts females of its own kind. • A big positive about these bugs is that they’re harmless to both trees and humans, and are only a nuisance because of the sound they make. • Cicadas usually sing during the heat of the day. They sing most actively in hot weather and do their most spirited singing during the hottest hours of a summer day, in a roughly 24 hour cycle. • In addition to attracting a mate (the boys courting the girls), the loud noise (up to 120dB) actually repels birds. Even cicadas must protect themselves from the volume of their own singing. • Cicada has been prized as a delicacy and are famed throughout the world for their song. • Many people around the world regularly eat cicadas. They are known to have been eaten in Ancient Greece as well as China, Malaysia, Burma, Latin America, and the congo. Female cicadas are prized for being meatier. • Shells of cicadas are employed in the traditional medicines of China. (There is a plastic bag with a half dozen cicada shells at my house if anyone is interested.) I read about cicadas from a variety of internet sources. All agreed that cicadas are harmless. Cicadas live underground as nymphs for most of their lives, feeding on root juice. They have strong front legs for digging and big eyes for seeing. Cicadas have three pairs of legs, all about the same length -- consequently, they aren’t adept at jumping, though they do try. The males sing to attract a mate. Adult female cicadas lay eggs -- hundreds of them. The eggs eventually hatch into small, wingless cicadas known as nymphs. The nymphs fall to the ground and dig below the surface. When the nymphs reach full size, they dig their way to the surface around nightfall, then climb to higher ground and shed their skin. The fully winged adult cicadas leave behind their old, empty nymphal skin. The life span of an adult cicada is short, as in a few weeks short. As mysteriously as they arrive, they will disappear. Most will be eaten by birds and other predators. Even the nymphs are not safe below the ground, as they’re often preyed upon by beetle larvae and other ground-dwelling parasites. That is no doubt far more information than you ever wanted to learn about cicadas. If we want to know if our cicadas are the 17-year variety or the 13-year variety or a more frequent variety, we’ll have to ask our Naturalist, Miriam Patton. There are 2,500 species of cicada.


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