Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Cicada Season

Adult Cicada

Nature's playlist for steamy southern nights is loud, starting at dusk with the "Beans, beans, beans" call of the Common Nighthawk, or the twitter of Chimney Swifts, then adding the staccato maraca sound of the Katydid, the chirp of the Cricket, and the occasional Owl hoot or frog song. Holding it all together in the background is the throbbing (and sometimes ear piercing) drone of the Cicada. The Cicada songs have been playing since Spring here in Athens, but it was only in the past 2 weeks that I started seeing a lot of them around, usually flying across the yard to escape a bird, or sometimes lying dead on the ground. Last week at our weekly nature hike, the Nature Ramble, I found a dead Cicada on the path with a Yellowjacket inside, feasting. I found a another in the opening of a Chipmunk tunnel in my front yard.

Dead Cicada become food for a Yellowjacket

Another Dead Cicada may be Chipmunk Food

Cicadas have an interesting life cycle. The adults lay eggs in the cracks of trees or branches and when the larvae hatch, they burrow deep into the ground (2 meters or so) where they feed on the sap of tree roots. They remain in the "nymph" stage underground for 2-17years. We have some of the 17 year Cicadas here in Georgia and this spring was supposed to be a massive year for them, though I haven't seen enough yet this year to be concerned. Yet! When they finally emerge from the soil, through neat round holes, they climb up off the ground, attach themselves to something, and very quickly moult, bursting open the hard exoskeleton to reveal their next phase--a large, (temporarily soft), winged body. After their wings have dried, the adults fly off to mate and start the cycle again. They live about 4 weeks. I have found many old exoskeletons ("exuvia") clinging to branches or tree trunks, but never had the chance to see the the emergence of an adult Cicada. And I still haven't!

The empty exoskeleton, or "Exuvia" of the Nymph

The other night I found a Cicada that had just emerged from the soil. I scooped it up and carried it home on top of my phone. It kept scuttling across the glass, trying to climb away, but I managed to get it home to a jar where I could watch and release it. They have very scratchy claws, by the way. I thought the transformation would take a few hours. Boy was I wrong.

Fresh out of the dirt and sitting on the curb

The Precarious Ride Home

I got the Nymph settled in a jar with some sticks to climb on and a lid to keep it from walking away. The Nymph seemed very antsy, climbing up the sticks, then hanging on the plastic wrap I was using as a lid, and "plucking" the plastic with its claws. I looked at its shell and didn't see any obvious signs of splitting or change, so I went upstairs to watch a show. My husband thought I should take the Cicada jar with me, but I was so smart and said, "no, it will take hours".

Inside the Jar, Ready to Go

One hour later, I came downstairs and found this. Magical. So cool! But I missed the whole transformation! Oh well.

Whoops, One Hour Later

We took the beautiful green adult outside, removed it from the jar and set it on a plant on the deck to harden its wings while I snapped a bunch of photos. In the morning it was gone. Next time, I will be prepared with a bigger jar and will not step away until I see the whole thing! But this was pretty neat in any case. Meanwhile, I'll keep my eyes open for more muddy Nymphs so I can try this again.

Freshly emerged
I thought it looked like a Fairy in the dark

Alien Greens


  1. Great photos, Katherine! And well written as well. There are actually both 13 and 17 year cicada broods in GA. Both types emerge in spring, so there's no chance of finding them now. The last emergence in the Athens area was several years ago, in Oglethorpe Co.; I didn't manage to hear them, but a friend showed me some. Bright red eyes!

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Dale. I am learning a lot about Cicadas this summer!