Can Cicadas Actually Fly? 5 Interesting Facts
Cicadas are infamous for a lot of reasons. They’re too many, too loud, they’re inescapable, they pee a lot,… and they can’t even fly? Many people have noted just how clumsy Cicadas can be.
One second, they’re climbing a tree, and then the next moment they flop down and hit the ground. They seem to use their wings to travel through the air, but they usually land face-first into whatever object is in their way.
It makes you wonder…can these guys actually fly, or are these wings just for show? Well, they can, just not as well as other flying insects. Cicadas aren’t the best when it comes to endurance, or speed, or power, or orientation, or basically anything. So, let’s see! Just how good (or bad) are Cicadas at flying?
How Far and How High Can Cicadas Fly?
Cicadas aren’t the best fliers, but they can use their wings to get around. However, they only fly when it’s absolutely necessary. This makes sense if you think about it. Cicadas have large bodies and heavy wings, making the flight a challenging feat for them. To conserve energy, they only fly to get around.
They don’t need to hunt prey or actively search for a mate. The males usually congregate in one area where they start singing to call for female mates. Unlike other insect species, both males and females are attracted by the male’s mating calls. When other Cicadas hear the mating call, they all gather to the same area.
Once Cicadas find a host tree for mating and egg-laying, they won’t travel far from that location. Also, because their bodies aren’t built for long bouts of flying, Cicadas don’t cover large distances. Typically, a Cicada won’t fly any higher or further than 500 feet in one go. And these are generous estimates.
According to a 1981 paper called “Flight and Dispersal of Periodical Cicadas”, authored by Richard Karban, Professor of entomology at UC Davis, Periodical Cicadas observed for the study rarely flew more than 164 feet in one go.
Most Cicadas covering distances larger than 164 feet were female, all of whom had already mated. Flying was also more common in adult Cicadas 2-3 weeks old. Karban’s study also suggested that flight was less common post-mating. Most Cicadas remained in the same initial chorusing spot after mating.
How Fast Can Cicadas Fly?
The fastest insect in the world is the dragonfly, which reaches a flight speed of 35mph. That’s pretty impressive if you think about it. In comparison to them, the average human runs with a maximum speed of around 28mph. But how do Cicadas compare?
Many Cicadas fly at a speed of around 9mph, which is about the same as a housefly. However, because Cicadas lack agility and quick reflexes, they might appear a lot slower. Some Cicada species, such as those in the genus Cryptotympana, can reach a speed of 18mph, or the equivalent of a moderate breeze.
To be fair, plenty of insects fall within this speed range, so I’ll cut the Cicadas some slack. Some insects fly a lot slower. Mosquitos are one such example, with a top speed lower than 1.5mph. Compared to other insects, Cicadas aren’t the slowest of the bunch, but they aren’t incredibly fast either.
Do Cicadas Fly In Swarms?
It might look like it when they emerge in such large numbers. But Cicadas don’t fly in swarms. Not like you’d imagine, at least. Cicadas don’t form large organized packs and they don’t fly long distances like other insects, such as bees and locusts. They’re clumsy fliers, so traveling in organized swarms is virtually impossible.
However, Cicadas aren’t territorial, so you will see them flock together in the same place. When males start singing, they signify the location of a safe breeding spot. They thus attract other male and female Cicadas to their location. This is important because these insects are the most active when they’re searching for a host tree for mating.
You’ll see large numbers of Cicadas flying in one direction, usually in search of one of these chorusing trees. Once most of them have settled and finished mating, the sight of Cicadas flying around becomes less common.
As I’ve already mentioned, it’s uncommon for Cicadas to fly around after mating. When this does happen, it’s usually female Cicadas that fly away in search of a better spot to lay their eggs. Females won’t gather together in the same spot to lay eggs, so there won’t be much noticeable activity.
Do Cicadas Fly During the Day or at Night?
Most Cicada species are active during the daytime, so it’s rare to see Cicadas flying at night. When they first emerge, they do so after sunset. But that’s just to avoid predation. During their first night after emerging, the Cicada larvae climb on the closest trees and they start molting into teneral adults.
Sometimes, males might continue their call at dawn. But when the light goes out completely, Cicadas stop singing. They’re most likely to sing when the sun is shining bright and temperatures reach 86°F or higher. And remember, if there’s no reason for Cicadas to fly, they most probably won’t. If there’s no call, they won’t be flying anywhere, especially when temperatures are lower.
There are some exceptional cases when Cicadas might keep calling and flying at night. Because they’re naturally drawn to warmth and light, they get easily confused by artificial lighting. Like many other insects, Cicadas use light as a way to navigate. This is a process called “transverse orientation”.
It’s not uncommon to see Cicadas flying around street lamps and clinging to well-lit walls. Much to the Cicada’s annoyance, though, street poles, traffic lights, and concrete walls don’t make great places for mating and egg-laying.
Why do Cicadas Fly and Land on You?
You’ll rarely see Cicadas chilling on the ground. That’s because laying there in plain sight makes them an easy target for predators. Instead, Cicadas go around looking for trees and woody shrubs to cling to. That’s where they’re the safest and coziest. So why would a Cicada fly and land on you?
Well, don’t freak out, but the Cicada might actually mistake you for a tree. You see, Cicadas get easily confused, and the resemblance between humans and trees is apparently uncanny for them. You don’t have to worry though!
Cicadas might look a little intimidating, but they can’t bite or sting. They’re completely harmless for humans and for just about any other animal. While it’s an annoying occurrence, you’ll be completely safe. The worst thing that could happen is the Cicada peeing on you, but that’s a topic for another day.
Cicadas can fly, but they’re not a natural-born talent. Their clumsiness makes them an easy target for bigger insects, birds, reptiles, rodents, and other animals. Whether it’s stamina, agility, or speed we’re talking about, the Cicada has a lot to work on to improve its flying skills.
Sometimes, they might even get confused and they’ll land on streetlamps or even humans instead of trees. But hey, they’re doing their best.
All in all, the Cicadas seem to be just fine, despite their F-tier flight abilities. Luckily, they don’t need to travel large distances, and they spend most of their adult life around the same host tree. They don’t have to organize in swarms either, because they use their song to orient themselves towards the best breeding spot.