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What Are Cicadas?

Cicadas are a fascinating group of insects known for their distinctive buzzing and clicking sounds and their periodic mass emergences, which occur at various intervals ranging from 2 to 17 years, depending on the species. These insects belong to the order Hemiptera and the family Cicadidae. Here is an overview of cicadas:

  • Morphology and Appearance: Cicadas typically have robust bodies with large, transparent wings and prominent compound eyes. They come in various species, and their size and coloration can vary widely. Common features include a membranous, veined wing structure, three jointed pairs of legs, and an elongated, tapering abdomen. Most cicadas are known for their striking patterns and colors, which can range from green and brown to black and orange.
  • Life Cycle: Cicadas have a complex life cycle that includes several stages: egg, nymph, and adult. The most distinctive aspect of cicada life cycles is the extended period nymphs spend underground, feeding on the sap of plant roots. Depending on the species, this period can last from 2 to 17 years. When nymphs are ready to become adults, they emerge from the ground, molt, and transform into winged adults.
  • Behavior and Ecology: Cicadas are primarily known for their loud and distinctive mating calls produced by males. These calls are used to attract females and can be heard during the summer months. Cicadas are primarily herbivorous, and adult females use their sharp ovipositors to lay eggs in plant stems. Nymphs feed on the xylem sap from tree roots, which is rich in nutrients.
  • Periodical Cicadas: One of the most intriguing aspects of cicadas is the phenomenon of periodical cicadas, which emerge in large numbers at specific intervals, such as every 13 or 17 years. These synchronized emergences are still not fully understood by scientists, but they are thought to be an adaptation to avoid predation by predators that do not have similarly long life cycles.
  • Geographic Distribution: Cicadas are found all over the world, with the majority of species occurring in tropical and subtropical regions. However, the most well-known periodical cicadas are found primarily in North America.
  • Economic and Ecological Impact: Cicadas play a significant role in their ecosystems. They can cause damage to trees and shrubs when females lay eggs in the stems, which can lead to wilting or dieback of branches. However, they also serve as a food source for various predators, including birds and mammals. Their periodic emergences can have cascading effects on local ecosystems.
  • Cultural Significance: Cicadas have cultural significance in many parts of the world. In some cultures, they are seen as symbols of rebirth and immortality. In Japan, for example, cicadas are associated with summer and are featured prominently in poetry and art.

Cicadas are remarkable insects with a unique life cycle and behavior. Their periodic emergences and distinctive calls have captured the curiosity of scientists and the cultural imagination of many societies. Understanding these insects is essential not only for scientific research but also for appreciating their ecological role and cultural importance.

What Types Of Cicadas Are There?

Cicadas belong to the family Cicadidae, which comprises numerous species worldwide. These species can be categorized into several broad groups based on their life cycle, behavior, and distribution. Here are some of the different types of cicadas:

  • Annual Cicadas: These cicadas have relatively short life cycles, typically completing their life cycle in one to two years. They are often found in temperate regions and are known for their annual emergence during the summer months. Examples include the Dog-day Cicadas (Tibicen spp.) in North America.
  • Periodical Cicadas: Periodical cicadas are perhaps the most famous type of cicadas known for their synchronized, long-term life cycles. They emerge in massive numbers at intervals of 13 or 17 years, depending on the species. The Magicicada genus in North America is a well-known example of periodical cicadas.
  • Green Cicadas: Green cicadas, as the name suggests, are often green or greenish in color. They are found in various parts of the world and are known for their distinctive calls. Examples include the Green Grocer Cicada (Cyclochila australasiae) in Australia.
  • Brown Cicadas: Brown cicadas are typically brown or dark in coloration. They are found in various regions and are known for their characteristic buzzing sounds. Examples include the Brown Dog-day Cicada (Neotibicen tibicen) in North America.

There are numerous cicada species within these broad categories, each with its own specific traits, distribution, and behavior. The study of cicadas, known as cicadology, continues to uncover new species and expand our understanding of these intriguing insects.

What Do Cicadas Look Like?

Cicadas are insects known for their distinctive appearance. These large, flying insects are best recognized for their robust bodies, transparent wings, and loud buzzing calls. Here's what cicadas look like:

  • Size: Cicadas vary in size depending on the species, but they typically measure between 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5 cm) in length. Some larger species can reach up to 3 inches (7.5 cm).
  • Body: The body of a cicada is stout and elongated, with a somewhat triangular shape. They have a tough exoskeleton that is usually black, brown, or green, which helps protect them from predators.
  • Head: Their large, prominent compound eyes are one of their most striking features. These eyes provide them with excellent vision. Cicadas also have three simple eyes, or ocelli, on top of their head.
  • Antennae: Cicadas have short, bristle-like antennae that are positioned between their eyes.
  • Wings: Cicadas have two pairs of wings. The front wings are longer and more prominent, while the hind wings are membranous. The wings are often transparent and veined, with intricate patterns. In some species, the wings are colored, ranging from green to brown.
  • Legs: Cicadas have six legs, which are adapted for clinging to trees or other surfaces. Their legs may have spines or hooks that help them grip onto branches.
  • Abdomen: The abdomen of a cicada is segmented and relatively wide, giving them their distinctive shape. Males typically have noisemaking structures on the sides of their abdomen.
  • Mouthparts: Cicadas have piercing-sucking mouthparts that they use to feed on the sap of trees and plants. These mouthparts are adapted for extracting fluids from plant tissues.

Cicadas exhibit sexual dimorphism, meaning there are differences between males and females in terms of their appearance. Male cicadas often have noisemaking organs called tymbals on their abdomen, which they use to produce the loud, distinctive buzzing sound they are known for. Females lack these structures and tend to have a more pointed abdomen for laying eggs.

Cicadas are also known for their periodic emergence, with some species appearing in vast numbers after several years underground. These periodic cicadas are particularly noteworthy for their synchronized mass emergence events.

Cicadas are known for their robust bodies, prominent compound eyes, transparent wings with intricate veining, and distinctive calls produced by males. Their appearance can vary depending on the species, and they are fascinating insects with unique life cycles and behaviors.

Learn more: What Do Cicadas Look Like?

Where Are Cicadas Found?

Cicadas are widespread insects found in various parts of the world, but their distribution can vary depending on the species. Here's where you might find cicadas:

  • North America: Cicadas are prevalent in many parts of North America. The United States, in particular, is home to a wide variety of cicada species. The periodical cicadas, which emerge in massive numbers at 13- or 17-year intervals, are famous in the eastern United States. You can find them in states like Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and other eastern regions.
  • South America: Cicadas are found throughout South America. They are often encountered in forests, grasslands, and other natural habitats. The Amazon Rainforest, for example, is home to numerous cicada species.
  • Europe: Cicadas are less common in Europe compared to some other regions, but they can still be found in various European countries, especially in the southern and Mediterranean regions. Spain, Italy, and Greece have cicada populations.
  • Asia: Asia has a rich diversity of cicada species. They can be found in a wide range of habitats, from forests to urban areas. Countries like Japan are known for their summer cicada choruses, and the cicadas in this region are culturally significant.
  • Africa: Cicadas are distributed across Africa, with a presence in both tropical and subtropical regions. You can find them in wooded areas and savannas.
  • Australia: Australia is home to a diverse range of cicada species. They are found in forests, woodlands, and urban areas across the country.
  • New Zealand: Cicadas are present in New Zealand, primarily in the North Island and parts of the South Island. They are more abundant in warm, forested areas.
  • Middle East: Cicadas can be found in parts of the Middle East, particularly in countries with diverse climates, such as Israel and Lebanon.
  • Tropical and Subtropical Regions: Cicadas are often more abundant in tropical and subtropical regions due to the warm climate and the presence of suitable host plants for nymphs. They can be found in rainforests, grasslands, and deserts, depending on the species.
  • Urban and Rural Areas: Cicadas can be found in both urban and rural environments. They are often attracted to light and may be more noticeable in urban areas during their adult stage.

The specific types of cicadas and their abundance can vary widely within each region. Some species have distinct emergence patterns, such as annual cicadas, while others have periodic cycles of 13 or 17 years. When and where you can find cicadas may depend on the particular species and their life cycle. During the summer months, you are more likely to hear the characteristic buzzing of cicadas in many of these regions.

What Is The Life Cycle Of Cicadas?

The life cycle of cicadas is a fascinating and unique process that involves several distinct stages, including both underground and above-ground phases. Here's the cicada life cycle:

Egg Stage:

  • The life cycle of cicadas begins when adult female cicadas use their ovipositors to lay eggs in the twigs and branches of trees, shrubs, or other woody plants.
  • Cicada eggs are typically small and rice-grain-like in appearance.

Nymph Stage:

  • Once the eggs hatch, the young cicadas, known as nymphs, drop to the ground and burrow into the soil.
  • Nymphs have strong, shovel-like front legs for digging and are adapted for a subterranean lifestyle.
  • They feed on the sap from plant roots using their piercing-sucking mouthparts.
  • Depending on the species, the nymph stage can last for several years, with some cicadas having exceptionally long life cycles (e.g., 13 or 17 years).

Molting Stage:

  • As they grow, nymphs go through several instars (developmental stages) during which they shed their exoskeletons in a process called molting.
  • The number of molts can vary depending on the species, but it typically ranges from four to five times.

Emergence Stage:

  • After the final molt, nymphs dig their way to the surface to emerge as winged adults.
  • They leave behind the exoskeletons, known as exuviae, which can often be found attached to trees or other surfaces.
  • Cicadas emerge in large numbers, sometimes known as "broods," which can number in the thousands or even millions.
  • Once on the surface, the winged adults are highly active and engage in mating and reproduction.

Adult Stage:

  • Adult cicadas have distinctive features, including large compound eyes, transparent wings, and often, vibrant colors.
  • Male cicadas produce loud buzzing or chirping sounds to attract females. These sounds are generated by vibrating structures called tymbals on their abdomen.
  • Females lay eggs, completing the life cycle, and then adults typically live for only a few weeks.

Death and Decomposition:

  • After mating and egg-laying, adult cicadas die. Their bodies decompose, returning nutrients to the ecosystem.

Cicadas are known for their periodic emergences, with different species having distinct life cycle durations, such as 13 or 17 years. This long life cycle is thought to be an adaptation to avoid predation by predators with shorter life cycles. The synchronized mass emergences of periodical cicadas are a remarkable phenomenon in the natural world.

Understanding the cicada life cycle is crucial for studying and predicting their emergence patterns, especially in regions where periodic cicadas are prevalent. These insects play an essential role in various ecosystems and are of ecological and scientific interest.

What Do Cicadas Eat?

Cicadas have distinct feeding habits that change throughout their life cycle, depending on their developmental stage. Here's what cicadas eat during each stage of their life:

Nymph Stage (Underground):

  • Nymphs, which live underground, primarily feed on the xylem and phloem fluids of plant roots.
  • They use their specialized piercing-sucking mouthparts to tap into plant tissues and extract nutrients.
  • While nymphs primarily consume plant sap, they do not harm the overall health of mature trees or shrubs, as they tend to feed on small, herbaceous plants or grasses.

Adult Stage (Above Ground):

  • Adult cicadas primarily feed on the xylem fluid of woody plants and trees.
  • Their feeding is usually less damaging than that of nymphs, as they tend to target branches and twigs rather than the main trunks of trees.
  • Cicadas have piercing-sucking mouthparts designed to penetrate plant tissues. They use their proboscis to access xylem fluid.
  • The adult feeding is typically not considered harmful to mature trees, but in cases of high cicada populations, it can result in some damage to young or stressed trees.

While cicadas feed on plant fluids, they do not bite, sting, or consume other insects or animals. Their feeding behavior is generally considered more of an ecological interaction with plants rather than a direct threat to other organisms.

Cicadas play a role in nutrient cycling in ecosystems, as the excess fluids they consume are excreted in the form of "honeydew," which can benefit other organisms, including ants that may feed on it. Additionally, the emergence of large numbers of adult cicadas can serve as a food source for various predators, including birds and small mammals, contributing to the ecological balance in their respective habitats.

Learn more: What Do Cicadas Eat?

Are Cicadas Dangerous?

Cicadas are not typically considered dangerous to humans. However, their impact on the environment and certain plants can vary, and there are a few considerations to keep in mind:

  • Non-Threatening to Humans: Cicadas do not pose a direct threat to humans. They do not bite, sting, or carry diseases that can harm people. In general, cicadas are harmless and are not a health concern for humans.
  • Ecological Role: Cicadas play a crucial ecological role by contributing to nutrient cycling in ecosystems. Their nymphs feed on plant roots, which can stimulate new root growth, and their emergence as adults can provide a food source for various wildlife species, such as birds and small mammals.
  • Plant Damage: While adult cicadas primarily feed on plant xylem fluids, their feeding behavior is usually not harmful to mature trees. However, in cases of very high cicada populations, they can cause some damage to young or stressed trees by injuring twigs and branches during egg-laying. This is more of a concern for orchards, vineyards, and newly planted trees.
  • Noise: The loud buzzing or chirping sounds produced by male cicadas can be quite noisy during their mating calls. While this noise may be a nuisance for some people, it is not harmful.
  • Mass Emergences: In regions where periodic cicadas emerge in vast numbers, their sheer quantity can be overwhelming. This can be seen as a natural spectacle by some but might be viewed as a temporary inconvenience by others due to the noise and the sheer number of cicadas.

Cicadas are not dangerous to humans, and their presence is a part of the natural environment. While they can cause some limited damage to plants in certain situations, they are generally more of an ecological and environmental curiosity rather than a direct threat. Their mass emergences are unique and can be viewed as a natural wonder by those who appreciate the complexity of the natural world.

Frequently Asked Questions About Cicadas

Do cicadas bite?

Cicadas do not bite humans. Their mouthparts are adapted for feeding on plant sap, and they do not possess the mandibles or biting structures that would allow them to bite or sting people.

Learn more: Do Cicadas Bite?

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