Locust vs Cicada – What is the Difference?

When people think of insect swarms, they almost always have apocalyptic visions of biblical proportions. They then tend to carry the same visions over to cicadas which are also swarmy in nature. But the differences are actually so vast that one can’t help but wonder where all the confusion comes from.

Are Locusts and Cicadas the Same?

The easiest answer is no, but that’s only half the story. Cicadas are part of the Cicadidae family, and it comes with a unique life cycle. Cicadas move from egg to nymphs to adults over several years, and there are 2 primary types of cicadas available: annual and periodical.

The annual cicadas emerge more or less every year with and they tend not to form massive swarms, unlike the periodical ones. The periodical cicadas emerge once every 13 to 17 years and can form impressive swarms, often equal to locusts, just with less damage along the way.

Locusts, on the other hand, belong to the Acrididae family and are basically grasshoppers. Their behavior is based on a swarming phase that can wreak havoc on people’s crops worldwide. They are so devastating, voracious, and damaging that their swarms are deemed plagues wherever and whenever they hit.

So, where does the confusion come from?

While the following idea is half speculation and half documented history, searching for the confusion between the two insects takes us back to early colonists. They all knew about locusts and the biblical plagues describing this doomsday insect, but they did not know the cicadas.

That’s why, when they reached North America and experienced the first swarms of periodical cicadas, they immediately explained the phenomenon as a locust plague. They didn’t realize it was a different insect with a benign impact on the environment and people compared to the locust.

Cicadas vs Locusts – 8 Primary Differences

But what are the core differences between the two species? Today’s article will focus on separating locusts from cicadas and see the 8 primary differences between the 2 species.

– Family

Cicadas belong to the Cicadidae family, the Homoptera order. This family contains over 3000 species of cicadas, each with their specific characteristics, albeit similar.

This family of insects is characterized by the loud noises that the males can produce as part of the mating call. When in a swarm, the distinct buzzing and ticking sound can actually damage your eardrums. Which is astounding coming from such a small insect.

Locusts belong to the Acrididae family, which comprises 10,000 species of grasshoppers out of the 11,000 available. The locusts in the Acrididae family are characterized by short antennae and tend to form massive swarms as adults.

Right from the get-go, we have different families, orders, and sub-orders for each insect species.

– Appearance

Adult cicadas are approximately 1 to 2 inches in length, with notable exceptions. Like the Empress, some species can reach 3 inches with a wingspan of up to 8 inches. So, it’s safe to say that the cicada is by no means a tiny insect.

Now picture an entire million-large swarm darkening the sky and add the distinctive buzzing sound on top of that. You can see why people tend to fear these otherwise harmless insects.

Appearance-wise, cicadas can vary from dark with red eyes, green with green eyes, brown, etc. Their colors may vary between the species, as will their size and life cycle.

They have massive wings, usually twice the size of their bodies, as they are adept at flying. You could easily mistake the cicada for a larger fly if it wouldn’t be for its wide apart eyes and distinct body-to-wings ratio.

Locusts are grasshoppers with a size varying between 0.5 to 3 inches, depending on the species. The most noticeable physical feature has to be the legs. They are almost as long as the body, always curled in a constricted position, similar to a spring. That’s because the locust uses jumping as the main mode of locomotion.

They are also capable of long-distance flight, which they have proven on many occasions in the past. The locusts’ wings are long and powerful, capable of propelling them at impressive speeds for long periods of time. There have been species known to cover over 80 miles within 24 hours or traversing the Red Sea with no break.

Appearance-wise, though, you can clearly distinguish between the two species.

– Lifespan

This is where things get tricky, especially regarding cicadas. Cicadas are annual or periodical, and the periodical ones will live 13 or 17 years as nymphs. Adults have a shorter lifespan of up to 6 weeks, during which their primary goals are feeding and mating.

This means that the cicada will spend most of its lifetime underground as a nymph. The lifespan will also vary depending on the species, with most living far less than that.

Locusts, (un)fortunately, only live between 3 to 6 months. This is a good thing seeing the damages they can inflict during their apocalyptic swarming behavior. However, they compensate through their prolific mating cycle.

Studies show that, in a swarm, the locusts grow in numbers between 10 to 16 times over the span of one generation.

This is a diabolical reproduction rate. Just to see how impressive things can get, consider the swarm’s size. A well-nourished and prolific locust swarm can peak at between 50 to 100 billion individuals. Yes, that’s billion, not million. That’s enough to cover a surface larger than 750 miles.

– Diet

The lovely cicadas only feed on plant and tree fluids. The nymph will use its oral appendix to drill holes into the plant roots around its environment. They don’t usually damage the root enough to kill the plant but can inhibit its growth if multiple nymphs gather around the same plant.

Adult cicadas prefer trees like oak, willows, maples, and others. They will also only consume the trees’ fluids and only damage young trees when there’s multiple cicadas around. Older trees won’t suffer at all.

The locusts will consume the meaty foliage of plants, both wild and domestic. Unfortunately, they prefer crops like corn, peanuts, citrus, oats, vegetables, and grass, making for a varied diet. Locusts begin to swarm when their population grows beyond what the local environment can offer in terms of food.

Due to their varied diet and willingness to consume every vegetable and plant they can, locust swarms can be extremely damaging to crops, even leading to years-long famine. They are so notoriously voracious that they’ve even earned their spot in the Bible.

– Swarming

Both cicadas and locusts swarm, but where they differ is in the swarm’s size, goals, and aftermath. Periodical cicadas (the 17-year ones) tend to swarm in the billions, just like locusts, with the upcoming 2021 swarm said to reach epic proportions.

The good thing is that cicada swarms are generally harmless. Cicadas don’t sting, don’t bite, and don’t cause environmental damage (if they do, they are mild at best compared to locust swarms).

The only danger arriving from cicada swarms is the sound. Cicadas are noisy and can generate, as a swarm, sounds reaching the 100-decibel limit. Other than that, there’s nothing to worry about.

Locusts, on the other hand, turn swarms diabolical. Locusts tend to swarm when their population grows so much that they become crowded and have exhausted their food sources. That’s when they decide to leave for better worlds and consume everything in their path.

Every locust will consume approximately 0.03 ounces of vegetation per day. An 80 million swarm can eat as much as 35,000 people daily, and an 80 million swarm is a petty one. Locusts tend to swarm in the billions.

Do some quick math and witness the sheer horror of the devastation that locust swarms can cause.

– Reproduction

Cicadas spend most of their lifetime in the nymph phase. Only adults can reproduce, and a female can lay approximately 400 eggs at once on tree branches. The nymphs will hatch soon, fall on the ground, and bury themselves to look for food. They will only emerge when they’re ready to turn into adults and reset the cycle.

Locusts function a bit differently. Females tend to lay their eggs in sandy and wet soil and will only lay up to 80 at once. The locusts truly explode in numbers during their swarming phase, when multiple females tend to lay their eggs in the same place. Which makes for millions or billions of females laying countless eggs and boosting the population even more as a result.

– Sounds

This is where locusts are vastly different than cicadas. Locusts will make sound by creating friction between the wings and the legs and body. They are loud, especially when the whole swarm takes part in the song, but nowhere near as loud as the cicadas.

Cicadas flex and relax abdominal muscles called tymbals, creating a buzzing sound combined with the occasional ticking. In swarms, the sounds can exceed 120 decibels. That’s what you get from a rock concert or a from handling a chain saw. It’s deafening and can cause ear problems, which is why experts recommend wearing earplugs when a cicada swarm is inbound.

– Distribution

Most of the cicadas are distributed worldwide, preferably in tropical areas. There’s one periodical genus that resides in the North American area called the Magicicada. This species only emerges once every 17 years.

Much like cicadas, locusts occupy the entire globe, except Antarctica and overly cold areas. Some species live in deserts, while others are spread across the globe. When it comes to locusts, however, it doesn’t matter where they live. Once the swarm is formed, they can reach anywhere since locust swarms travel huge distances.

Conclusion

As you can see, cicadas and locusts differ quite a lot in physiology, biology, feeding and mating pattern, and overall social structure. They are different insects with different goals and behaviors that literally fall at different ends of the spectrum.

That’s because cicadas are mostly harmless, while locusts are pests that multiply out of control, destroy crops, and cause chaos wherever the swarm reaches.

For additional questions on cicadas of locusts, fire up the comment section, and I will feel obligated to respond.

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