Cicadas – Habitat, Diet, Facts & Photos

More than 3000 Cicada species populate the planet, with three different categories – annual, periodical, and proto-periodical. What’s most interesting about cicadas is their life cycle. They could go dormant for many years and come to the surface out of nowhere. Many ancient cultures associated them with the idea of rebirth because of this.

While most cicadas will emerge from underground in 2-5 years, periodical cicadas can spend up to 17 years underground. And when they emerge, they do so in huge numbers. Their deafening buzzing can be heard across entire cities, even. If you want to find out more about these wonderful insects, keep reading!

Appearance

Across the 3000 Cicada species, they can vary in length from 0.75 inches to 2.25 inches. They can be green, brown, or black, with blue or white eyes. Depending on the species, you may have distinctive features but generally, they all look the same.

Cicada wings are transparent and may appear the be rainbow-colored if you hold them up to a light source. Some Cicada species have a W-shaped vein system on the tips of their wings, as well. What’s more, cicadas have two sets of wings and three eyes called ocelli. Their bodies are also oval-shaped not unlike other insects such as flies and bees.

Habitat & Distribution

Cicadas generally live in desert scrubs, tropical rainforests, and temperate-season forests. They like the humidity just as much as they like hotness and warm temperature, in other words.

North of Mexico, approximately 170 Cicada species, both annual and periodical, buzz around happily. Some cicadas can be found in southeastern Australia (Tasmania), but most cicadas are found in grasslands, deserts, and forests. You’ll rarely find cicadas in agricultural fields and around new home constructions, though.

That’s because cicada development cycles require a period of relaxation without too much activity. Something else that indicates specific cicada habitats is their nymph or adult development stages. Periodical cicadas, for instance, live east of the Mississippi River, while 13-year cicadas live in the southern states. In the northern states, you’ll find the 17-year cicadas!

As for habitats, I differentiate between adult and nymph cicada habitats:

Adult Cicada Habitats

Adult cicadas make their habitats from woody shrubs, twigs, and tree trunks. When mating, adult females will make small incisions in tender twigs and various branches where they lay their eggs. They prefer deciduous trees and actively avoid coniferous plants. As adults, they’ll live above ground for approximately 3-4 weeks before they die.

Cicada Nymph Habitats

After the female lays her eggs in a plant or tree, six or seven weeks will pass before the eggs hatch. First-instar nymphs will burrow about one inch into the ground and will actively feed on grass roots.

As they go through other instars, the nymphs will keep burrowing deeper into the ground, feeding on roots and shrubbery.  This process will continue until the nymphs emerge from the ground, crawl up a tree trunk, and become adults.

Cicadas don’t live for long but during their lifetime, their buzzing can be heard across entire territories. As nymphs, they live underground but when they get topside, the buzzing starts anew!

Types of Cicadas

There are three types of Cicadas – annual, periodical, and proto-periodical. The only difference between them is the emergence period or the time spent in their nymphal stage. Starting from a couple of years spent underground and reaching up to 17 years of dormancy, cicadas are some of the most interesting insects out there.

I’ll talk about each Cicada type, starting with:

– Annual Cicadas

Annual Cicadas are either black, green, or olive-patterned, with brown or black eyes, and two sets of wings tinged in black and green. They have 3 ocelli and 2 large compound eyes, with short antennae, and a bigger size than periodical cicadas.

All annual cicadas will spend 2-5 years as nymphs, before emerging from the ground. When they’re ready to emerge, annual cicada nymphs will do so during July and August.

The molting process will see them turning into adults able to sing and mate. So, the reason they’re called annual cicadas is that every year, a new generation emerges from the ground.

After becoming adults, annual cicadas will find mates and secure the next generation of cicadas. They’ll never get too far from the wooded areas and parks where female cicadas lay their eggs, though.

Annual Cicada species include Robinson’s cicada, Lyric cicada, Scissors grinder cicada, Swamp cicada, Northern dusk singing cicada, Prairie cicada, and Walker’s cicada. All these species have slight physical differences and distinct singing patterns, if only slightly different.

– Periodical Cicadas

Black on the top and orange underneath, periodical Cicadas are over 1 inch in length, with a 3-inch wingspan when they’re flying. They have bright-red eyes with two sets of membranous wings. Most of them live in the midwestern and eastern parts of the United States and make habitats out of deciduous trees and shrubs.

Periodical cicadas have an extraordinarily synchronized life cycle. Each generation spends 13-17 years underground, during their nymphal stage. There, they feed on plant roots and other nutritive fluids.

During springtime, nymphs emerge from the ground for the molting process, transforming into adult cicadas. Periodical cicada emergence is split into broods, with individuals of the same brood emerging in the same period.

When cicada broods emerge, the surrounding lands become filled with millions of cicadas buzzing and flying at the same time. The sheer number of cicadas may damage younger trees but old trees escape unscathed. Either way, all periodical cicadas will die in 4-6 weeks after they emerge. During that time, they’ll mate and make way for the following generation, in 13-17 years.

– Proto-Periodical Cicadas

This type of cicadas is present in overwhelming numbers in some periods, while mostly absent in other years. Physically, they’re very similar to other cicadas we’ve talked about.

Two sets of wings, red or brown eyes, a black and orange body, and a healthy appetite for tree juices make proto-periodical Cicadas appealing. During the nymphal stage, these cicadas may stay underground for 8-9 years before emerging to the surface.

In some years, you’ll barely see any of these cicadas above ground. But there’s a good reason for this difference in population density. The hypothesis is that cicadas have evolved to emerge at varying times to confuse potential predators. Nymphs may also acoustically sense whether the surroundings are populated by predators. This may determine them to delay their emergence by a few years.

Behavior & Lifestyle

Periodical, annual, and proto-periodical cicadas alike spend a lot of time underground. There, the nymphs eat all day long, feeding on the juice of nearby tree roots. As they advance through the instars, the nymphs will travel deeper and find more nutritive roots. When they eventually reach the final instar stages, at least a year would have passed (13-17 years for periodical cicadas).

When the temperature 8 inches below the ground surface reaches 64 degrees Fahrenheit, the cicadas will emerge. Few things change in their behavior, though, since their diet consists of the same plant and tree juices. Generally, cicadas won’t damage their feeding targets unless it’s a small and feeble tree.

For an entire month, cicadas will feed, mold, and mate with other cicadas. Female cicadas will make small incisions in small branches and lay their eggs there (about 400-600 at a time). In 1-2 months, the adults will die, while the laid eggs will drop to the ground, releasing the nymphs, a new generation of cicadas.

Adult cicadas are very quiet at night and during the early morning. They prefer to sit up in trees to cool off instead. During the day, they’ll fly around, buzz incessantly, feed, and look for a mate. Cicadas are very clumsy at flying, though. They’ll often hit objects in their path or even enter houses without a care in the world. Fortunately, cicadas can’t breed indoors, so they’re just a nuisance.

This is a species that’s born to feed and mate. After they give birth to the new generation of cicadas, adult cicadas will slowly die. Their lifespan is extremely low, as a result.

Nutrition & Diet

Cicadas have a simple diet – they feed off of trees, leaves, and plants. If you want to keep cicadas in an enclosure, make sure they have enough vegetation nearby. They won’t damage it (too much). Well, the females may damage the plants by making incisions in them, to lay their eggs. Cicadas generally choose maples, oaks, ash, and willows to lay their eggs.

Cicada nymphs, on the other hand, will only feed with plant fluids from underground plant and tree roots. You don’t have to feed them anything. They’ll take their sustenance without your intervention!

What’s more, nymphs are unlikely to cause damage to the plant, unless numerous nymphs feed on the same plant. If that’s the case, the plant’s growth may be stunted for the time being.

Cicadas don’t eat other insects, aren’t combative, won’t suck your blood, and aren’t infectious. That’s pretty good, right?

Reproduction & Life Cycle

All Cicadas begin as eggs, stuck in the slit of a plant. This is the nymph stage, which comes right after the egg stage. Then, they fall to the ground and penetrate the earth, going ever deeper as they grow up.

They’ll feed with plant and tree juices until they reach adulthood and emerge from the ground. After they emerge from the ground, they enter their final stage, that of adult cicadas.

As adults, cicadas will actively look for mates to spread their genes. They don’t have much time at their disposal, only 3-4 months at best. So, they’ll feed, have sex, eat some more, and have sex some more.

After the mating ends, the female will look for adequate plants and shrubs to lay its eggs (approximately 300-400 in a time). The cycle begins anew with a new generation of cicada eggs, nymphs, and adults.

During the mating season, male Cicadas will sing to attract females. Cicada singing is widely recognized for its deafening buzzing that you can hear even half a mile away.

Because cicada females will lay their eggs in forested areas, males won’t stray from these areas either. Their entire purpose in life is to reproduce and give birth to a new generation of cicadas, after all.

Wrap Up

Cicadas are a fascinating insect species if you’re into insects. Their life cycle is full of surprises and mysteries, at first glance. Why do they emerge after years spent underground? Some cicadas may spend even 17 years underground, without an apparent reason. Well, as you’ve seen, they have a pretty good evolutionary reason to do it.

If you’re trying to keep cicadas at home, then you’ll need a suitable enclosure or you can simply set them free. If you have a lot of vegetation around your house, you can let the cicadas be. They’ll mate, lay their eggs on plants and trees, and move on with their life for their remaining lifespan.

If you’re lucky to be around when periodical cicadas emerge, you’ll see an unforgettable show. Millions of cicadas will fill the skies and bludgeon your eardrums with their buzzing!

Leave any questions below, and I’ll answer them as soon as possible!

Cicadas

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