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Singers of the Insect Kingdom-Cicadas

May 7, 2018

Cicadas, the singers of the Insect world are also known as Black Prince and New moon in various parts of the world. These are just a few of the common names, in different parts of the world Cicadas are known by different names. Cicadas are the loud, cacophonous and relentless insects, famous for the sound they produce, usually called mating calls. They also produce boisterous sounds when there is a possibility of an attack and to contact other males.

Cicadas are often confused with 17-year locust or grasshopper, although no real similarity exists between them when it comes to their habits.

Cicadas

Cicadas are a superfamily, the Cicadoidea of the order Hemiptera and the feature which gave them the place in our article is that they are the singers of the insect kingdom.

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Male Cicadas produce this specific sound with vibrating membranes found in their abdomen. The sound is amplified because Cicadas usually sing in groups and the fact that their abdomens are almost hollow. This high pitched sound is actually a mating call and different species sing their own distinctive kind of song. Some species can be more musical than others which allow several species of Cicadas to coexist.

Cicadas love the Sun, so they usually sing during the daytime, but at the same time, cicadas hate harsh temperatures, whether the mercury of the thermometer is extreme positive or negative, their singing schedules will be affected. But this varies from species to species. Number and proximity of other Cicadas in that area also affect their schedules. Usually, Cicadas don’t sing at night but there are exceptions to this rule too. But usually, the Cicadas sing at night in presence of artificial light sources like streetlights or on the night of full Moon.

Life Cycle

Cicadas hatch in the form of small white ant from the rice-shaped eggs and begin dropping from the branches of trees where their mother originally deposited them, in a slit of a branch. They unconsciously begin their journey from branches to the roots of the trees (by jumping from the branches of trees). Once they are on the ground they begin tunneling in the soil using powerful forelegs, looking for the roots to feed on. As soon as they find roots they begin feeding on the roots of the trees and since root sap does not contain much food (it contains very dilute substance), it can take some type of Cicadas many years to reach to their full size and hence they stay underground for 2 to 17 years, depending on the species.

After complete development, they begin emerging from the grounds, now, as white-colored nymphs. The first thing they do upon emerging is, shed the nymph exoskeleton, inflate their wings with fluids and harden their skin which transforms them into fully grown adult Cicada also known as Imagoes. After this transformation is complete they begin doing what their parents did before them-mate and die (in case of males), mate, lay eggs then die (in case of females). For mating, they attract males by producing songs which sounds almost like songs of Grasshoppers. But the method by which they produce this sound is entirely different. While many insects like Grasshoppers produce sound by scraping their legs, Cicadas produce sounds by clicking their chests. They have a special organ called tymbals which produces sound by flexing of its muscles. This sound is then intensified by almost hollow abdomens.

* Different Types of Life Cycles

There are three different types of life cycles of Cicadas-

Annual:  There are some species of Cicadas which emerge every year.

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For example, North American Cicadoidea species appear every summer in North America. Their lifecycle typically spans 2 to 5 years.

Periodical:  Species of Cicadas which appear periodically usually after 13 or 17 years.

For example- Magicicada septendecim emerges after every 17 years. They will appear next in 2029 in Shenandoah Valley, Western Virginia.

Proto-periodical:  Species with proto-periodical life cycles emerge every year. In some years, they turn up in large numbers, like in Okanagana.

Do Cicadas Come out Every Year ?

Cicadas have this peculiar idiosyncrasy that they come out once in every 13 or 17 years and they spend these 13/17 years underground in their larvae form sucking saps from tree roots.

There are roughly 15 broods of Cicadas, 12 of which are the broods which take 17 years to become adults and come out and 3 broods take only 13 years to come out.

Why Cicadas come out in 13 or 17 years? The primary supposition is that 13 and 17 are prime numbers, meaning that they have no other factor but 1. That means their predators cannot have a similar life cycle. If their life cycle were, say of 12 years than it would have been very easy for predators with the life cycles of 2, 3, 4, 6-years to eat them.

So there are no specialist predators waiting for them at the end of their life cycles but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t food for anyone, most of the Cicadas are eaten away anyways.

Predators

17-year Cicadas are very tasty, protein-rich meals for its predators, the major reason why birds, bats, wasps, spiders, squirrels seem to prey on them. So much so that at the times of mass emergence of Cicadas various amphibians, reptiles, mammals, birds adjust their scrounging habits to treat themselves from the overabundance of these species.

In Australia, Australian Cicada killer Wasps stings and knocks out the Cicadas, due to which they fall down from the trees where Cicada-hunter accumulates and carries them to place them in one of the many shelves of the underground catacombs and use them as food stocks.

Nymphs living underground are also not safe since they too can become a victim of burrowing animals like chipmunk and moles.

Antipredator adaptations: In order to keep the food chain balanced, Cicadas too over the years evolved to save itself from its predators. Some of the strategies used by Cicadas are mentioned below-

  • Speed: Large Cicadas fly with increased speeds when they sense danger.
  • Camouflage: Most of the Cicadas expertly camouflage themselves from any possible lurking predators, such as birds that hunt using their eyesight. Many Cicadas use Disruptive Coloration, a form of camouflage which works by disordering of the frame of these insects.
  • Act: Some Cicadas pretend their death.
  • Predator Satiation: Most of the periodical Cicadas turn up together in large numbers. Due to which number of Cicadas in an area becomes more than the number of predators in that area. This result in predators eating up most of the Cicadas and the predators are satiated. And the remaining Cicadas (which are still so many in numbers) can now propagate in peace.
  • Coloration: Some of the species of Cicadas startle their predators by emitting bright deimatic flash on their hind wings when in jeopardy, giving themselves the time to escape.

Are Cicadas Harmful ?

Cicadas aren’t harmful to humans and since they survive on plants and trees, they aren’t harmful to them either.

Cicadas don’t have jaws (like wasp or ant) or stingers (like bees) so they don’t tear or chew flesh or deploy venom and paralyze or harm their victim. Rather their mouths are like straws for sucking plant juices. So, Cicadas pierce and suck, they might try to pierce and suck you too but it would be them being ignorant and thinking of you as a juicy tree branch. Also, blood is too thick for Cicadas; they might die while trying to suck blood.

Their feet are pointy and they have some sharp parts (like egg-laying parts, ovipositors) which might feel like a bite.

If you think that you are, indeed, bitten by Cicadas then you might have been bitten by the Cicada killer Wasp. It is a large Wasp which hounds Cicadas. They are often attached to Cicadas and on rare occasions, can be found stalking them. Cicada killer Wasps attaches themselves to the adult Cicadas and takes them to their hideaway after paralyzing them, to lay eggs on them and eventually feeds Cicadas to their larvae. These wasps usually stay away from humans but if aggravated then they don’t think twice before biting you.

In case of trees, however, ovipositing and overfeeding of roots of trees by the nymphs can cause damage to the trees. The extent of damage is greater in case of the weak saplings and ornamental trees. Since these ornamental trees and saplings cannot afford the loss of a branch by flagging, they are the ones which are affected the most. But there are ways to shield these trees from Cicadas. By avoiding the planting of these ornamental trees the year before Cicadas are expected to emerge from the ground is one of them. Ovipositing can be harmful to fruit trees as well since farmers want every branch of the tree to yield fruit and cannot bear ovipositing and flagging by cicadas.

Usually, Cicadas don’t lay their eggs on flowering plants because their branches are too short for them to do so. But if you still want to keep Cicadas away from your plants and saplings then avoid using lawn mowers or any other devices which make loud noise during daytime. Because loud noise attracts female Cicadas (which are looking for mates) and male Cicadas (since they tend to stay together in order to save themselves from any potential predators, using the technique of Predator satiation) alike.

But the damage to trees by Cicadas during ovipositing has its benefits too. Cicadas act like parasites, indirectly removing weak and thin branches by laying eggs on the slits of these branches which eventually weakens them even more, as a result of which the branch falls off the tree, a process known as flagging.

The logical point of view says that if the Cicadas were tree-killers than there would be no trees left and eventually no Cicadas left, which is not the case.

How Many Cicadas are There?

Cicadas need large and bushy trees to feed on when they are nymphs and soil that is not too damped and soaked. So naturally, they are found in large numbers where the summers are warm and these kinds of plants and soils are available.

Thus, Temperate, tropical and terrestrial regions are appropriate for cicadas.

About 190 species of Cicadas are found in the US, and over a dozen of them originated in Canada. Australia too has hundreds of assortments of Cicadas. According to The Catalogue of Cicadoidea by Allen F Sanborn, there are over 3390 species of these singers, worldwide.

Conservation  Status

According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, Cicadas lie in the category of near threatened species. Near threatened species are those species which are not exactly on the verge of extinction but not absolutely safe either.

Facts

cicada

Names: These insects are commonly known as ‘Locust’ due to the similarity in their features. But in reality, true locust’s looks more like Grasshoppers.

Eye color: Different Cicadas have different eye color.  Their eye color ranges from Red, blue, white, grey, yellow to multi-colored.

Fungus: Massospora Fungus can destroy the ability of Cicadas to reproduce by infecting their abdomens.

Number of Eyes: Two eyes are common to almost every living animal, but what makes Cicadas even more special is that they have five eyes- two large compound eyes and three Ocelli. Ocelli are jewel like structures positioned between the two compound eyes and they are used to detect light and darkness.

Edible: You can eat them too. Boil them, Broil them, Barbecue them, sauté them. Eat them however you want. Chefs create dishes with cicadas being primary ingredient. Cicada kabobs, Cicada soup, Cicada stew, coconut Cicada, Cicada salad are some of them.

Cicadas pee: They expel the excess fluid they suck out of the plant sap. It is called Cicada Rain or honey dew.

Cicada Sound: Only male Cicada can make the sounds for which Cicadas are famous for.

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