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Column: The sing song of cicadas

Posted: July 26, 2018 1:28 p.m.
Updated: July 27, 2018 1:00 a.m.

This job affords me the luxury of being outside, which I enjoy. During these past eight years, I’ve had the opportunity to observe and capture many moments of nature up close as I prune young trees, perform tree exams and/or water our newly planted trees.

Today, I’ll focus on an unlikely summertime celebrity. An alien-looking creature that I have become fascinated and somewhat obsessed with, the cicada. The name of this unusual bug is a direct derivation of the Latin cicada, meaning “tree cricket”. Most common around here is the annual or dog-day cicada (Tibicen spp.) a signature element of our dog-days of summer, which, like each August, have almost descended upon us.

Cicadas sing in the heat of the day unlike true crickets who do their romancing at night! You know it’s going to be a really hot day when the males start calling early in the morning. From their tree perches you can hear the distinct, weeee-oh, weeee-oh, weeee-oh…. that pierces the air. The hotter it is, the more they like it!

Their noisy choruses are an unmistakable sign of summer and serves to attract the females. This is a risky business for the males because it also advertises their presence to predators! And there are lots of predators. Many species of large birds, including such large raptors as the Mississippi kite (Ictinia mississippiensis), which visit Camden each year, eat cicadas every chance they get. By emerging in great numbers over a short period of time, cicadas succeed year after year by overwhelming the predators with high enough populations to ensure the production of the next generation.

What exactly is a cicada and what does it do? Cicadas are members of the insect order Homoptera. Other insects in the same order are aphids, scales, leafhoppers, treehoppers and spittlebugs all of which are commonly found in our Southern landscapes. Cicadas are large, flying, plant-sucking insects that do not sting or bite humans but do have piercing/sucking mouthparts that are used to suck sap from tree leaves.

According to National Geographic, there are about 3,000 species of cicada around the world and many of them remain unclassified to this day. They range from temperate to tropical climates where they are among the most widely recognized of all insects mainly due to their size and unique sound. Cicadas are often called locusts, although they are unrelated to true locusts, which are a type of grasshopper.

Male cicadas attract females by their characteristic songs, which at times can be quite annoying and rather loud. After mating, the adult females begin to lay eggs by making slits in the twigs of various plants, mostly trees. Upon hatching, nymphs (a juvenile cicada) drop to the ground, burrow beneath the soil surface and spend the next two to five years feeding on root sap of various trees and shrubs. Oak trees seem to be a particular favorite and since we have so many here in town, it’s generally not too hard to find evidence of them in late July and August. The nymphs are tan in color, hunch-backed and have stout forelegs they use to dig through soil.

When full-grown, the nymphs emerge out of the ground at night, creating a hole the size of a jumbo magic marker. They crawl up a nearby tree or wall and their skin splits in half along their back. What appears is a big-headed, bulging-eyed, green and winged adult that hangs from the plant for several hours.  During this time, the newly morphed creature rests as its wings and body harden off and then it flies away. What’s left behind is the shell of their former self, literally.

For the most part, the populations of annual cicadas are not considered a nuisance unlike its cousin the periodic cicada (Magicicada spp.) whose synchronized emergence in the thousands always makes headlines. Most of their life cycle is spent underground, appearing for just a few months every 13 to 17 years. Adult periodic cicadas have black bodies and distinctive red eyes -- talk about a bizarre looking insect, they are it.

In general, cicadas are not considered a major plant pest and do only minor damage to tree leaves. By September, you may see evidence of their egg-laying activities; small dead twigs will appear in the canopy of a tree. This is called “flagging” and during some years can be numerous but again, not considered a serious health threat nor will it kill a tree.   Other than that, their role in the cycle of life is to be a good food source for birds and other animals and to remind us that our hot summer is almost to an end.

Research sources: Colorado State University Extension, Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension, Wikipedia, Great Plains Nature Center, About.Com Insects and InsectSingers.Com

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