Periodical Cicadas

Periodical Cicada
White-Eyed Periodical Cicada

While the familiar green-and-black Dog-Day Cicadas are present every July and August in small numbers, the Periodical Cicadas appear, simultaneously, only once in seventeen years in any given area. Periodical cicadas do not emerge everywhere at the same time. Twelve broods of 17-year cicadas appear in different areas of the northeastern U.S. in different years, emerging from late May through June. Their bright red eyes and reddish markings distinguish the Periodical Cicadas from the Dog-Day Cicadas which emerge later in the summer (July through August) and have green markings. Each brood actually consists of up to three separate species which all emerge together. Each looks slightly different and the males of each species court their ladies with a different serenade. If a human takes the time to listen and try to sort out what seems to be cacophony, he or she can easily distinguish these three songs.

Map of Broods
Maps of 17-Year Broods and Emergence Years from Display at Cincinnati Zoo

Males of Two Species
Males of Magicicada septendecim (on left) and Magicicada cassini (on right)
Two of the Three Species Which Emerge Together

It just so happens that a “borderline” between two of these broods runs somewhere through eastern Hamilton County and western Clermont County, Ohio. Thus, Cincinnati residents got their taste (in some cases, literally) of cicadas in 1987 while many Clermont and Brown County residents got their turn in 1991. Brood X (that’s a Roman numeral “10”) emerged in the central and western parts of Hamilton Co. in 1987, and is due again, in 2004. Brood XIV emerged in eastern Hamilton Co., Clermont Co., and east of there in 1991, and is due, again, in 2008. Clermont College is uniquely situated on the border between these two broods and could serve as a host institution to entomologists who may come to Cincinnati to study this “border” area. Why does this border exist? What keeps the two broods from overlapping? There were Periodical Cicadas emerging on campus in 1991 and in the 2000 early emergence, and they have been emerging in 2004. All three species of Periodical Cicadas have been heard singing on campus in the 2004 emergence.

Ohio Map
Maps of Brood Distribution and Emergence Years in Ohio,
Edited from Publication by Ohio State Extension Service

Cicadas on Tree
Many Cicadas on a Tree Trunk

In 1987, the Cincinnati Zoo, Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, College of Mount Saint Joseph, and other cooperating institutions generated national and international publicity for the Cincinnati area, even though Brood X is one of the largest broods and also emerged in Washington DC and New York City. The BBC and Children’s Television Workshop were among the media crews who came to Cincinnati to film. Leading cicada experts Monty Lloyd (Univ. of Chicago) and Tom Moore (Univ. of Michigan) both came to Cincinnati to study Brood X. Chris Simon is also a leading cicada expert. We are fortunate that another cicada expert, Gene Kritsky, resides here in the Cincinnati area and teaches at the College of Mount Saint Joseph.

Cicadas on Plant
A Group of Periodical Cicadas on a Virburnum Plant

In late-April and early-May, just before the adult Periodical Cicadas are due to emerge, people may see numerous mud “chimneys” in their yards, especially if there is a tree nearby. Each of these is caused by a cicada nymph (a young cicada who lives underground) pushing mud up out of its burrow following rainy weather. Sometimes, if the chimney is quickly broken off, the nymph can be seen retreating down its tunnel.

Nymph Underground
Cicada Nymph Underground

Nymph in Hole
Cicada Nymph in Its Hole

Cicada Chimneys
Mud Cicada Chimneys

When a cicada nymph is ready to molt to an adult (many experts think that it happens when the soil temperature reaches a constant minimum of 64° F or 18° C), it will emerge from its burrow by night, making a visible exit hole, climb a nearby tree or bush, then shed its skin and molt into an adult cicada. Then, the sights of numerous cicada skins on and under trees and the noisy, black-and-red adult cicadas will become common for about four to six weeks. In the 2000 early emergence, the first cicadas I collected emerged on 12 May, and in 2004, the first ones were collected on 10 May.

Cicadas Molting
Cicada Molting from Nymph to Adult

Cicadas Molting
Cicada Expanding its Wings

Cicadas Molting
Numerous Cicadas Molting

Adults and Shed Skins
Hardened Adults, Ready-to-Go, and Shed Skins

Many people wonder if adult cicadas feed. This cicada is sucking sap from a holly twig.

Adult Feeding
Cicada Adult Feeding on Holly

Each species of cicada has a characteristic song, and the songs of the three males can easily be distinguished by a human listener. The song of Magicicada septendecim sounds like “pharaoh.” The song of M. cassini sounds sort of like someone trying to get a lawnmower started. The song of M. septendecula sounds like a lawnmower that’s “just chugging along.” Male cicadas’ songs are produced by a pair of vibrating structures which are located in covered cavities behind their back wings. The different species sing at different times of day. Choruses of M. septendecim are most common in the morning, choruses of M. cassini are most common in mid- to late-afternoon, and choruses of M. septendecula are most common around midday. The University of Michigan Museum of Zoology Periodical Cicada Web Site has samples of the songs of all three species.

Male Tympanum
Male Cicada with Wing Lifted to Show Tympanum

By looking at the bottom sides of a number of cicadas, one can soon learn to tell the males (with rounded back end) from the females (with pointed back end). The end of a female cicada’s abdomen is formed into a sword-like ovipositor. Following mating, the females lay their eggs in slits which they make in small tree twigs and branches.

Male and Female
Male (on right) and Female (on left) Periodical Cicadas (Magicicada septendecim)

Cicadas Mating
Male and Female Cicada Mating

Female Ovipositing
Female Ovipositing (Laying Eggs) in Tree Branch

About a month later in the summer, the eggs will hatch, and the tiny nymphs will fall to the soil and climb into cracks or burrow in using their enlarged front legs. Cicada nymphs insert their mouthparts into tree roots from which they suck sap (It is thought that tiny, new hatchlings may, at first, feed on grass roots.). For the next 17 years they will live underground, using their soda-straw-like mouths to suck sap from tree roots. Imagine eating nothing but watered-down maple syrup your whole life! No wonder it takes them so long to grow up. Nymphs remain underground until they are ready to molt to adults.

Egg Slits in Branch
Egg Slits in a Tree Branch

Eggs in Slits
Eggs in Egg Slits

For these Periodical Cicadas, this takes 17 years — or at least it’s “supposed” to. Most of the Periodical Cicadas in the northern part of the U.S. are on 17-year cycles, while most of those in the southern parts are on 13-year cycles. Thus, some Periodical Cicada experts feel that there are three species of 17-year cicadas and three species of 13-year cicadas for a total of six species, while other researchers feel that there is a total of only three species, and that the 13- vs 17-year cycles are genetically-controlled (like brown vs blue eyes in people). Here in the Cincinnati area, the emergences of Brood X every 17 years are well-documented for at least the last 100 years, and we know that they are due, again, in 2004. However, in 1983, four years before the big 1987 emergence, there was a small emergence, and in the year 2000, as predicted by Dr. Gene Kritsky, a considerable “small” emergence occured in the greater Cincinnati area, four years before the upcoming 2004 emergence.

Flying Cicada
Flying Cicada

Children who have never seen these cicadas before and may not see them again, soon, have a natural curiosity about them. An observant person will soon realize that not all cicadas have red eyes. In 1987 in Cincinnati, cicadas were found with white, pale blue, orange, butterscotch, and chocolate brown eyes. The wings of cicadas are reported to filter out ultraviolet light, and people who have placed a cicada wing on their skin prior to exposure to the sun have noticed that the spot under the wing does not tan.

Eye Colors
Eye Colors: Strawberry, Vanilla, Chocolate, and Butterscotch

Periodical Cicadas pose no threat to most humans. They can not bite or sting and if they land on you, it is purely accidental — you might as well be a rock from their point of view. They do not carry any diseases communicable to humans. Because of their soda-straw-like mouths, they cannot eat the leaves of your plants. Contrary to “urban legend,” cicadas cannot lay eggs in a child’s hand, nor will they eat the plants in your garden! However, some allergic people may react, adversely, to consumed cicadas. In 2004, a man who knew he was allergic to “shellfish” made the news when he had to be rushed to the hospital after eating, reportedly, 30 cicadas at once. Remember that, just as humans, birds, fish, frogs, and snakes are all members of phylum Chordata, so also cicadas, shrimp, millipedes, centipedes, and spiders are all members of phylum Arthropoda.

Cicada Flying
Cicada Flying

However, cicadas are good to eat. These are good mole food. Thus, the mole population rises in an emergence year as they feast on underground nymphs. Songbirds and other wildlife will consume large numbers of adult cicadas as will cats and dogs. In general, it will not hurt cats and dogs to eat cicadas. In 1987 however, several veterinarians in Cincinnati had to treat cases in which the animal had consumed so many cicadas, simultaneously, that the skins (which are non-digestible roughage) had blocked a portion of the animal’s digestive track. Many other animals also prey upon adult cicadas, and the reproductive strategy of the cicadas is to emerge in such large numbers that the predators are satiated. In years when Periodical Cicadas emerge, many more young songbirds survive because the parents can find food more easily. (Cicada-killer wasps, which emerge later in the summer along with the Dog-Day Cicadas, capture and paralyze those cicadas (but they do not come out early enough to make use of the Periodical Cicadas). They then place the cicadas into burrows as food for their developing young.)

Ant Food
Dead Cicadas are Food for Ants

Remains of Dinner
Cicadas are Food for Cats and Dogs

In many cultures around the world, people eat cicadas, too. The ancient Greeks considered cicadas a delicacy. Many tribes of Native Americans ate cicadas both before and after the colonists arrived. Cicadas are eaten in Australia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, and Japan. In the society section of the June 2, 1902 Cincinnati Enquirer, an account was given of a party where cicada-rhubarb pie was served. In 1987 in Cincinnati a number of people took the opportunity to try batter-dipped, deep-fried cicadas or cicada stir fry and a certain radio station enraged a certain pizza company. Ironically, in 2004, that pizza company resurrected their own version of the song! In 1990 in Chicago, cicada-eating was so popular that it made the pages of Time Magazine. Just make sure the neighbors haven’t been using insecticide. A Web search for “cicada” and “recipe” will turn up quite a number of pertinent Web pages.

Deep-Fried Cicadas
Battered, Deep-Fried Cicadas are Yummy
(Just Ask George and Gene)

Newly-emerged (teneral) adult cicadas may be collected around midnight, as they are emerging from the ground and molting. These soft, white cicadas should be blanched (like vegetables from your garden that you are preparing to put in the freezer), or they will bruise and discolor. To blanch teneral cicadas, boil about one minute then drain. At this point, they may be frozen for storage, if desired.
More recipes from the 26 May 2004 Clermont College Cicada Cook-Off

Cicada Stir-Fry:

  • minced onion, coriander (cilantro), fresh gingerroot
  • sliced carrots, chopped cauliflower and/or broccoli
  • water chestnuts and/or other vegetables of your choice
  • bean sprouts and snow peas
  • blanched, teneral cicadas
In a wok or other suitable pan, heat a couple tablespoons of vegetable oil. Add ingredients in the order listed above when those in the most recent addition are partially cooked. Serve over whole-grain (“brown”) rice and add soy sauce to taste.

Cicada “Shrimp”:
Dip teneral cicadas in batter, then deep-fry until golden brown. Drain, then serve with cocktail sauce.

1902 Cicada-Rhubarb Pie:
Make your favorite recipe for rhubarb pie, including some blanched, teneral cicadas.

Grecian Pillars and Cicadas
The Ancient Greeks Ate Another Species of Cicadas

Although large trees can tolerate and may even benefit from the “damage” caused by egg-laying females, young trees can be severely damaged and should be protected. Because females make slits in small diameter branches, a sapling whose trunk and main branches are still small is at risk of having significant injury. In years when periodical cicadas emerge, young trees can be effectively protected so that the females cannot lay eggs on them. This may be done by covering the trees with loose “bags” of cheesecloth or screening, tied securely at the base. Larger, mature trees often respond to this “pruning” of the ends of the branches by producing more branches.

Tree Cover
Young Tree with Net Cover

Cicada “Pruning” in an Older Crabapple Tree
(Note Dead, Broken End of Branch)

A certain species of fungus attacks Periodical Cicadas, causing the back ends of their bodies to fall off and eventually killing them. This fungus has a 17-year life cycle, which is timed to coincide with the emergence of the adult cicadas. Gene Kritsky and others have hypothesized that perhaps some Periodical Cicadas have evolved a 13-year life cycle is to avoid that fungus.

Fungus-Filled Cicada Missing the End of Its Abdomen

Other kinds of cicadas are a part of the folklore of many cultures. Artists and poets of many cultures have been inspired by cicada and their songs. Goethe, Browning, Tennyson, and Anatole France are just a few of the poets whose works include reference to cicadas. Gene Kritsky has reported that in China, shed skins or actual nymphs from a different species of cicada nymphs (all of which which are silent) are collected and ground up. A tea made from these skins is given to noisy, crying babies (like noisy, adult cicadas), in hopes of quieting them. People think the baby will then be quiet like the cicada nymph rather than noisy like the adult cicada. Similarly, the shed skins are used to treat “ringing in the ears.” The cicada nymph burrowing out of the ground has been a symbol of rebirth or reincarnation in a number of societies. For example, Native Americans of the Oraibi tribe believed that these cicadas had the power to renew life and made a medicine from them which was used to treat battle wounds. In Mayan, Aztec, and Chinese cultures, carved, Jade cicadas were placed on the tongue of a corpse prior to burial so that the deceased would some day re-animate and/or go on to better things like a cicada nymph coming out of the ground and shedding its nymphal skin. The Japanese, famous for their beautiful and intricate kites, frequently make these in the likeness of cicadas. In China, male cicadas are kept in cages in people’s homes so that the homeowners can enjoy the cicadas’ songs. In Navajo mythology, the cicada-god fought the birds and rescued Earth for humans. The people of Provence, France consider cicadas to be good luck. Good-luck charms in the shape of cicadas are popular items there.

Clay Cicada
Clay Cicada

A Zuni Legend:
“Once upon a time, a cicada singing from a pine bough excited the admiration of a coyote, who asked that he might be taught the song. He was not an apt pupil, but in the end, and after a fashion, he learned the tune. On the way home, the proud coyote stumbled in a gopher’s hole. Between the shock of the fall and the dust in his eyes and nose, every detail of the tune was forgotten. Twice an accident occurred, and twice the coyote returned to his teacher perched upon the pine bough. The second time, the distrustful cicada had resolved to take no more risks, but rather to teach the coyote a lesson of another kind. Strongly gripping the bark, he swelled and strained until his back split open and he was able to slip out of his old skin, which still retained its shape and position. Choosing a suitable quartz pebble, he popped this into the skin and flew to a neighboring tree. There on the pine branch, he left his empty skin which gave back no answer to the requests of the returning coyote. Soon the patience of the latter was exhausted, and with a spring he seized the counterfeit cicada and splintered his teeth on the stone inside. The teeth in the middle of his jaw were crushed so far down into his gums that one could barely see them, and all of his descendants to this day have inherited his broken teeth. So also, to this day, when cicadas venture out on a sunny morning to sing, it is frequently their custom to protect themselves by leaving their counterparts on the trees.”

Coyote and Cicada
Coyote and Cicada

When some people say “locust,” they mean a cicada. However, when entomologists say “locust,” they mean a grasshopper. An example of this is the locust plagues mentioned in the Bible. When a brood of cicadas emerged a few years after the first white colonists arrived in the New England area, they thought these were the Biblical locusts, and the incorrect name stuck. When botanists say “locust,” they mean a kind of tree.

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Copyright © 2000 by J. Stein Carter. All rights reserved.
Photos Copyright © 1987 by J. Stein Carter. All rights reserved.
This page has been accessed Counter times since 11 May 2000.

These songs were pasted together from recordings downloaded from the
University of Michigan Museum of Zoology Periodical Cicada Web Site.
Thanks to Dr. Gene Kritsky for sharing his cicada expertise.