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April 2, 2013

The most interesting 17 year cicada facts

If you have 18 minutes to spare, watch the video version of this article:

Or save 15 minutes and just read it:

These are the 17 most interesting 17-year cicada facts (in my humble opinion). All these facts apply to 13 year cicadas as well. And always report periodical cicada sightings to so cicada researchers can track them. Two broods of periodical cicadas will emerge in 2015, Brood IV & XXIII.

  1. Names: People call these cicadas “locusts” but they are not true locusts — real locusts look like grasshoppers. The phrase “17 year cicada” indicates that they arrive every 17 years. The name “periodical cicadas” indicates that they arrive periodically and not each and every year. The scientific name for the Genus of these cicadas is Magicicada, and there are 3 types of 17 year Magicicadas: Magicicada septendecim, Magicicada cassini and Magicicada septendecula. This is a true locust:
  2. There are 13-year cicadas too: there are 13 year cicadas too! There are four species of 13-year cicadas: Magicicada tredecim, Magicicada neotredecim, Magicicada tredecassini, and Magicicada tredecula. Broods XIX, XXII and XXIII feature these cicadas.

    Here’s a video that will help you identify the various species:

  3. Eye Color: Most 17 Year Cicadas have red eyes, but they can also have white, gray, blue , yellow , or multi-colored eyes
    White Eyed Cicada
  4. Fungus: The Massospora fungus infects Magicicadas, filling their abdomens and destroying their ability to reproduce. Often, their entire abdomen will fall off. The cicadas actually spread the fungus throughout their local colony via mating — the Massospora fungus is a cicada STD!
  5. They’ll attack land on you if you’re using a power tool or lawn mower. Cicadas think the sounds made by power tools and lawn maintenance equipment are made by cicadas. They get confused and will land on the people using the equipment! Pro-tip: cut your lawn in the early morning or near dusk when the cicadas are less active.
    Cicadas on Man
  6. Cicadas have five eyes: Cicadas have two, obvious, large, compound eyes, and three ocelli. Ocelli are three jewel-like eyes situated between the two main, compound eyes of a cicada. We believe ocelli are used to detect light and darkness. Ocelli means little eyes in Latin.
    5 eyes.
  7. People eat them: People eat them. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. There, uh, cicada kabobs, cicada creole, cicada gumbo, panfried, deep fried, stir fried. There’s pineapple cicada, lemon cicada, coconut cicada, pepper cicada, cicada soup, cicada stew, cicada salad, cicada and potatoes, cicada burger, cicada sandwich… that’s, that’s about it.
    Cicada Ice Cream
  8. Animals eat them: all wild animals and domestic pets will eat them. Dogs will gorge themselves until they choke. Squirrels will eat them like corn on the cob. Wild turkeys will grow fat and juicy on the cicada feast. Fish go crazy for them too — you can use them as bait, or use lures that mimic them.
  9. Cicadas “eat” tree fluids: Cicadas don’t eat solid foods — instead they use their slender, straw-like mouth parts to drink tree fluids.
  10. Cicadas pee: Yes cicadas pee, so wear a hat when walking under trees if that sort of thing bothers you. Cicadas drink tree fluids, and then expel the excess fluid they do now need. People call it “honey dew” or “cicada rain”.
  11. That cicada sound: Only male cicadas make the sound they’re famous for. Males have organs on their abdomen called tymbals. Muscles pop the tymbals in and out, which creates the sound we hear. Males make different calls for different reasons, and each species has a unique sound. Females can make sound too — they flick their wings to respond to males. Read this article for more information.
  12. There are billions of them: there are literally billions of 17 year cicadas. Why? One theory suggests that the large number of cicadas overwhelms predators, so predators are never able to eat them all and cicadas, and many always survive to mate. This is a survival strategy called “predator satiation”.
  13. They damage wimpy trees: the biggest concern about 17 year cicadas is their potential to damage young trees. The truth is they will damage limbs on the wimpiest of trees, so if you if you have weak, pathetic, wimpy ornamental trees in your yard you should consider placing netting around the trees if the cicadas visit your yard. Also you can try hosing them off with water, placing insect barrier tape around the trunk of the trees, or picking them off like grapes! Or, plant strong, beefy American trees — that’s what I would do. Cicadas actually benefit the health of trees by aerating the soil around the roots, and trimming the weak or damaged limbs.
  14. Stragglers: Periodical cicadas that emerge in years before they are supposed to emerge are called stragglers.
    hipster cicada
  15. 17 and 13 are prime numbers. Scientist speculate that one reason why these cicadas emerge in 17 or 13 year cycles is because those are prime numbers. The fact that 13 & 17 are relatively large* prime numbers makes it difficult for predators to synchronize with them. (*Relative to the average lifespan of an animal.) Annual cicadas (cicadas that arrive every year) often have wasps specialized to prey on them; periodical cicadas have no such wasp because no wasp could evolve to synch with it.
  16. They use their color to warm up: Cicadas need to be warm to sing and fly around, but they’re cold blooded. Their dark skin absorbs the heat of the sun, which helps to warm them up.
  17. 17 year and 13 year broods co-emerge every 221 years. Cicada Broods usually don’t overlap geographically, and it is very rare when they emerge in the same year. The next time Brood II (the brood emerging in 2013) will co-emerge with another brood will be in 2115 when it co-emerges with Brood XIX. You might need a time machine to see that happen.

Bonus: More information on the morphology of 17 and 13 year cicadas, so you can tell the difference…

Another bonus:

What is the taxonomy of the Magicicada genus?

Kingdom: Animalia (animals)
Phylum: Arthropoda (arthropods)
Subphylum: Hexapoda (hexapods)
Class: Insecta (insects)
Subclass: Pterygota (winged insects)
Infraclass: Neoptera (wing-folding insects)
Order: Hemiptera Linnaeus, 1758 (true bugs)
Suborder: Auchenorrhyncha (hoppers)
Infraorder: Cicadomorpha
Superfamily: Cicadoidea
Family: Cicadidae Latreille, 1802 (cicadas)
Subfamily: Cicadettinae Buckton, 1889
Tribe: Taphurini Distant, 1905
Subtribe: Tryellina Moulds, 2005
Genus: Magicicada Davis, 1925


  1. Edie says:

    We are being bombarded with these creatures. How do I protect my tender vegetation and trees from them? Is there any way?

    1. Dan says:

      I should write an article about that. Damage occurs when the females lay their eggs. They lay their eggs, make grooves in the branches, which causes “flagging”, or browning of the leaves. They actually do the trees a favor by pruning the weakest branches. That said, they primarily go after trees, so shrubs, flowers and garden plants are generally speaking, safe. Weaker ornamental trees and fruit trees are at a greater risk – the ornamental trees because they are generally small and weak, and the fruit trees, because no farmer wants to lose part of her harvest. For the ornamental trees and fruit trees you can try the insect tape (usually blue or metallic) that wraps around tree trunks, and netting to wrap around the limbs. You can also chase then off with a hose. Unless the majority of your landscaping is petite ornamental trees, you probably don’t have much to worry about. They’ve been doing their think every 17 years for thousands of years, and there are still plenty of trees around to show for it.

  2. MJ says:

    Hello, I experienced the (I think) 2007 emergence in suburban Chicago. I was wondering why is it every 17 years? Is that known? What I’m getting at is why don’t some turn 17 years old every year? Or is there some environmental event that triggers the brooding. Thank you!

    1. Dan says:

      We don’t know exactly why 17 years, but there are a number of theories. I believe Stephen Jay Gould (in his book “Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History”) first postulated that their long, prime-number life cycles evolved over time in order to avoid gaining a (above ground) predator that would specifically target these cicadas. This theory was fleshed out in the paper “EVOLUTION OF PERIODICITY IN PERIODICAL CICADAS” by NICOLAS LEHMANN-ZIEBARTH and others (all caps because I’m cutting and pasting from the actual document). If some emerged every year in the same location, a predator would eventually evolve to prey on them, and their numbers would be limited, just like annual cicadas like the Tibicen. Tibicens emerge every year in relatively small numbers, and they have a specific wasp that preys upon them (Cicada Killer Wasp).

  3. Jennifer says:

    OK – so an emergence lasts 4 (to 6) weeks. What does tht mean, exactly?Our cicadas have been around for about a week, with tons of the shells clinging to everything at this point, and seemingly fewer live insects than shells. We are planning a community Garden Walk 4 weeks from now. If we clean up all the shells in the next couple of weeks, should we expect to have lots more shells / bodies to clean up in 4 weeks?

  4. Jennifer says:

    How long (how many weeks) will the 17 year cicadas be around once they start emerging en masse? Will they continue to emerge after the initial “invasion”?

  5. Lonnie says:

    I caught a cicada with the shape of a white bow on its stomach.
    I can’t find any reference to this.

  6. robi says:

    i want the sound of minnesota cicada but cant find it anywhere…any clues?

    1. Dan says:

      Robi, Probably an Okanakana or Tibicen. Check out the cicada links on this page and see if they’re what you’re looking for.

  7. Amy says:

    My 6 yr. old daughter and I found what I assume is an annual cicada (green eyes and limbs)today in our yard. We watched for a while and then came in to research. Thanks for all of the info. I remember a huge emergence of cicadas when I was a child and look forward to sharing the experience with my kids!

  8. Susannah says:

    I think these facts are sooooooooooo interesting!!!:)

  9. Dan says:

    Marsha — it is odd to find one 2 years later. Usually straggling (when a periodic cicada emerges early or later) happens one year later or 4 years prior. But nothings seems impossible.

  10. Marsha says:

    We had 17-year cicadas in Northern Illinois in 2007. Today, I found a 17-year cicada on a tree alive. Is
    this common?

  11. Diane Kennedy says:

    Well we have lots of the cicadas at Goldendale WA on our place and sort of enjoy looking for them. I have several in a jar, some skins and some was alive when put in the jar. I hear them at night and all day too. I am not going to eat any though but thanks any way see ya Ted It is June 18 2009

  12. Karen says:

    Comment to Edna Simpson above – they DO NOT bite. They can’t – they don’t have teeth.

  13. Dan says:

    Joe — you might want to stop by the pointy hat store, because Conehead katydids can be mighty loud!

  14. Joe says:

    Hey Dan- If that was a katydid, I am the pope! It was incredibly loud.

  15. Dan says:

    Joe — Katydids, most likely.

  16. Joe says:

    Okay- Minnesota here and dusk, sitting on my back porch as the sun is nearly set. I hear two ten second or so sounds that are just like a cicada, only about
    500 times louder. I have never heard anything like it. I know the sounds of cicadas and this was definitely a single insect. Any ideas? I have never heard
    anything like it before!

  17. tb says:

    I live in Arizona and we have cicadas every year, and every year they make an unholy racket from May through August. I have seen these bugs, they look very similar to all the pictures I’ve seen on your site.
    So why are we seeing them for such a long stretch every single year? I wish they would only come out every 17 years, and only last a month, as your site claims.
    I now associate the noise with the boiling heat of our summers. Why are we seeing them every year? Why does it last for 3 whole months? The noise is getting very tiresome.

  18. Dan says:

    They can poke you with their straw-like mouthpiece, but unlike flies or bees they don’t do this maliciously — they only do it when they think you’re a tree.

  19. sam says:

    can cicada accully bite you or not or is it just a sting

  20. nancyed2003 says:

    How long will they hang around? I am in Kentucky and I am anxious for them to leave!!!

  21. cynthia says:

    What can be done for your trees after eggs have been laid inside them?

  22. Edna Simpson says:

    someone said the cicadas do not bite .they are wrong they do bite .we were sitting tobacco in 1992 when they were here.they would light on our legs. and arms. back.and bite us it really hurt i lived in richmond ky anyone working our in the field can tell you they do bite.

  23. Lisa S says:

    Southern Ohio, Kentucky, Northern Tennessee, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, Southern Pennsylvania, Western parts of Virginia & W. Virginia, and parts of New York & New Jersey .

    I live in Central PA and started hearing and seeeing the flying adults just today (June 5, 2008)

  24. florence says:

    do you know what states the bugs will be this year

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