Cicada Facts

When it comes to noise-makers, think cicadas (sih-KAY-duhs). The males are among the loudest insects on Earth. You can hear some species “singing” even when they’re more than a kilometer away. And if they gather in thick masses, cover your ears!

Why do cicadas only come out every 17 years?

One of the most fascinating species is called the 17-year cicada. Why? Because it lives 17 years—an amazing length of time for an insect! But it spends most of its long life as a nymph in the soil. There, it sucks the juice from tree roots and grows very slowly.

One spring—when it’s time—all the 17-year cicada nymphs in the same area head for the surface at once. They climb up trees, poles, fences, even houses. There, they cling to while they break out of their shell-like coverings, becoming winged adults.

Male 17-year cicadas sing all day in huge choruses. They vibrate the membranes along the sides of their bodies, producing shrill, rattling noises. The species-specific sound resonates through their air sacs and other body parts. When it strikes their wings, the rattling is amplified even more.

How long are cicadas around?

The adult life of a 17-year cicada is short, but it’s long enough for the male choruses to attract females. After mating, a female pokes a number of holes in the twigs of trees. In each hole, she lays several eggs, which hatch in less than two months.

The newly arrived nymphs drop to the ground and immediately burrow into the soil, using their strong front legs. Another 17-year cycle begins. Another ear-splitting chorus is in the making.

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Quick Cicada Facts

  • In 1956, billions of cicadas emerged around Chicago, Illinois, all at the same time.
  • One female 17-year cicada was spotted laying more than 800 eggs in the holes she made.
  • The sounds made by some tropical cicadas are sometimes mistaken for birdsongs.
  • So many 17-year cicadas have gathered in Massachusetts that their combined weight has broken branches off oak trees.

Folklore

  • In parts of the United States, the singing of cicadas is thought to cause shifts in the weather.
  • Folks in Asia use medicine made from cicadas to treat blisters.
  • To American Cherokees, cicada songs once signaled the ripening of beans.
  • Ancient Greeks and Chinese saw cicadas as symbols of long—even eternal—life.

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