The end of summer is approaching, and many of the insects in our area are at their maximum size and abundance. As we were enjoying the nice weather this week, we were cooking on the grill and we heard the loud buzzing of the cicadas in the trees. It reminded us that this might be a good time to feature cicadas as our Friday Flyers.
No summer is complete without hearing the singing of cicadas in the trees. Unlike the old adage about noisy children, most often cicadas are heard and not seen. Cicadas have an interesting life that is much different from the insects featured in our previous weeks. First of all, cicadas attract their mates with their loud buzzing, rather than by aromatic pheromones, or visual displays. Their loud buzzing helps the adults find each other in the very leafy canopy. In areas where cicadas are very abundant, you can sometimes see them flying around between the trees, but usually you’ll just hear them. They are very fast flyers, and they need to be. Their main predators are large solitary wasps called Cicada Killers. These wasps relentlessly search the trees to find cicadas to feed their young. Cicada Killers are very effective, but cicadas are very numerous. The cicadas that avoid predation find mates, and lay their eggs slightly below the surface of tree branches where they are relatively safe. When the eggs hatch, the larvae drop to the ground and burrow in. They will feed on the roots of their favorite trees until they are mature. Then they climb out of the ground and hook their claws into the bark of the tree, and then their skin splits right down the back. From this crawling underground-dwelling stage emerges a winged adult ready to start the process all over again.
In our area of Illinois, there are two types of cicadas commonly encountered, the Annual Cicada which has one generation every year, and the Periodical Cicada which emerges only once every 17 years!!! In other words, in your lifetime you’ll probably only get a chance to see them 4 or 5 times! It’s hard to imagine living 17 years underground, and only living for a week or two as a flying adult. We have seen Annual Cicadas most often where Maple trees are abundant, because this is one of their most preferred food plants. A typical Annual Cicada is slightly greenish brown with sort of a “trident” marking on its back. Its wingspan is usually about 2 1/2 to 3 inches. They make their loud noise by forcing air through hollow chambers in their bodies that amplify the sound. Cicadas are the loudest insects, and if conditions are right you can easily hear them from 300 to 500 feet away.
Our Annual Cicadas are somewhat drab looking and their wings are transparent membranes with dark wing veins and some minor spots. But in the tropics, cicadas are sometimes very colorful and are sometimes even furry. Tropical cicada species can be much larger than the Annual Cicada. There is one cicada species from Malaysia, Pomponia imperatoria, that has been known to reach wingspans of 8 inches, and their bodies are the size of small birds. Cicadas cannot sting or bite, so they are harmless to humans. But if one of these big boys errantly flies into you, it’ll probably leave a mark! Cicadas are day-flyers, but sometimes they’ll be attracted to lights at night. Entomologists in the field often have better luck finding them at night. There are undoubtedly many species yet to be discovered in the tropics.
Cicadas are well represented in our Wonders Of Nature department. We have single specimens beautifully spread and matted in our wood frames for as low as $49.95! We also have double frames with two tropical colorful species for $115.00, and a 13X10 inch frame with 4 different species at $195.00. Cicadas are not as commonly collected as other insect families, but serious collectors always have a few. We’re sure that when you see the interesting variety and size of some of the specimens, you’ll want to add some to your collection too. Enjoy the rest of the summer, and remember to listen for the cicadas.