Starting in July or August, you might hear some loud screeching or buzzing from the treetops. Don’t be scared! The cicadas, endemic to North America, have emerged and the adults are trying to attract mates through their “beautiful” screaming. 

What IS a Cicada?!

Featuring: Brood X’s large amber compound eyes and three ocelli (eye spots)

Cicadas are true bugs, meaning that they have three body parts, three pairs of legs, two antennae, compound eyes, and an exoskeleton. Cicadas actually are very well known for their shell, or exoskeleton! Have you ever seen a brown cicada shell clinging to tree bark, a fence post, or a wooden telephone pole? Those brown shells are the remnants of the young cicada, also called a nymph. The crack down the back of the shell is where the adult emerged from, ready to take flight into the trees in search of mates and for places in the bark to lay their eggs.

After the cicada eggs hatch, the nymph wiggles down to the ground and burrows into the soil in search of delicious fluids to drink. They have sucking mouthparts, so they will ingest liquids from plant roots. In the case of annual cicadas, nymphs emerge from the ground in the summer, climb a few feet up a tree or fence post, and crack open to reveal the adult. In the case of periodical cicadas, such as the Brood X Cicadas that emerged back in 2021, the nymphs emerge from the ground every 13 or 17 years. 

Incomplete Vs. Complete Metamorphosis

Unlike butterflies, but similarly to dragonflies, Cicadas undergo incomplete metamorphosis. This means that instead of having 4 distinct life stages, the cicadas and dragonflies only have 3. Many insects have the egg, larvae, pupae, and adult life stages, however cicadas do not pupate. They go straight from being the larvae (called nymph for those that undergo incomplete metamorphosis) to the adult stage. There are no chrysalis or cocoons for cicadas!

Sounds of Summer

Once they are adults, they start looking for mates. The males will screech from the tops of the trees in hopes of attracting a female! They have two plates that cover muscles and ribs on the underside of their abdomen. When the muscles expand and contract, air is allowed to flow through and the plates themselves move inward, creating a clicking sound, or the “Ree-er, ree-er, ree-er!!!” noise that we hear. Listen to the songs of cicadas, then head outside in the summer to see if you can identify the species of cicada just by the sound they produce! It’s much easier to hear them than to see them since they are often so high up.

Support Cicada Populations

While many might be concerned about cicadas damaging their trees, for the most part only very young or already stressed/sick trees will be overly damaged by cicadas. These otherwise harmless insects can be such a joy to observe in the summer and support many other wildlife populations, such as birds, larger insects (such as the Cicada Killer Wasp), and herps who can catch and feed on them. In order to conserve and protect their populations, try the following:

  1. Turn off lights at night
  2. Plant native trees such as oaks, maples, and willow trees for the adults to drink from
  3. Plant native grasses and shrubs for the nymphs to drink from

Another way to protect them is through Cicada and other insect merch! A portion of all The Art of Ecology merch proceeds benefits wildlife conservation and habitat preservation efforts. Share your love of these creatures and the ecosystems they thrive in through stickers, books, t-shirts, and more.

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