The sounds of early summer ring out from my back yard where a multitude of Cicadas sing together in perfect harmony. Their invasion this year has been like a plague of locusts; like something right out of the Old Testament.
As I travel the short path to my garden shed, I dodge the sticky strings of a low strung spider web and duck the swoop of a live cicada as it relocates to a different branch. His many brethren line the trunks and branches of trees, clinging to the fence, the house, the porch steps, my garden bench and many other locations where they attach themselves for their metamorphic transmutation.
Each year around the end of April, we see an influx of these strange looking creatures who've made their home in the trees. Luckily, they don't sting or even bite like some of the other insects out here.
They play their repetitious tune like a band of tiny kazoo players; an eerie sound that goes on for hours. Even my dogs become spooked by their loud keeeeening whine that continues uninterrupted, like a choir sustaining a single note indefinitely.
Not surprisingly, the males produce this noise with vibrations that come from membranes located on their abdomens. Different calls are hard to distinguish but theirs is a language of its own, whether expressing alarm or attracting a mate. Here is an example of cicada song.
Regarded by some as a powerful symbol of rebirth, these odd insects appear in mid-summer, buzzing and clicking away. Their tiny newly hatched nymphs crawl into holes dug in the ground when they fall from branches where their mothers deposited hundreds of eggs.
Some cultures eat this insect preferring the meatier female and others, such as the Chinese, use its discarded shell in traditional medicine.
According to the National Geographic, "When young cicada nymphs hatch from their eggs, they dig themselves into the ground to suck the liquids of plant roots. They spend several early life stages in these underground burrows before surfacing as adults. The process varies in length but often takes a number of years." 1
Cicadas are members of the order Homoptera with over 3,000 different species which have evolved independently over millions of years. Emerging at a variety of intervals, some cicadas appear every 13 years, some at 17 year intervals and some, like the ones in my back yard known as annuals, emerge every year.
A study done in 2004 in Brazil suggests there is a strategy to their emergence during years that fall within prime numbers like 13 or 17. Perhaps it is to keep the predators guessing.
In Texas, there are over 40 species including the Superb Green Cicada (Tibicen superba - Fitch 1855) shown in the pictures looks like the Texas Dog Day species (Tibicen texanus - Metcalf) above.
The upside to their annual invasion is that their offspring attract birds which eat this tasty insect. This morning there was a family of brilliantly red Cardinals enjoying a feast in my back yard.
In the picture, a brand new nymph leaves its molted exoskeleton to take flight. He hangs easily upside down on the back porch before testing out his brand new lacy wings.
On the other hand, these odd insects attract the not-so pleasant professional Cicada killer, the wasp which uses these insects as a haven for their own reproductive cycle. The Giant Cicada Killer Wasp is huge, measuring nearly two inches.
The wasps dig holes in the ground and emerge when least expected. Although cicada wasps rarely sting humans, preferring to use their venom to paralyze their prey, their proximity can be alarming.
Between swatting and ducking, I yearn for the coolness of fall when these pesky guys will once again grow quiet and remain in their dark homes underground.