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June 28, 2015

What do Cicadas Eat and Drink?

Filed under: Cicada Anatomy,FAQs — Dan @ 9:52 am

Cicadas “eat” / drink something called xylem (sap), which is a watery tree fluid containing amino acids and minerals. Cicadas drink rather than eat.

People probably ask “what do cicadas eat” because they are afraid that cicadas will eat their flowers and garden fruits and vegetables. Cicadas lack mouth parts that can chew and swallow vegetation. Your tomatoes and marigolds are safe.

How does a cicada drink xylem? The cicada’s mouth parts (aka rostrum or beak) are in the shape of a straw, which can pierce rootlets, roots and branches.

beak

  • The labium form the outside of the beak of the cicada; inside the labium is the stylet which is comprised of the mandibles and maxillae, which the cicada uses to pierce plants and drink their sap.
  • The labrum connects the labium to the rostrum…
  • The rostrum, or what people call the “nose” of the cicada, contains enourmous pumping muscles (1) that suck the xylem up into the cicada.
  • The cicadas’s polymerized, viscous saliva plugs up any holes their mouth parts create (2), so a root will not continue to leak xylem when the cicada moves on to a new root. They put the cork back in the wine bottle, so to speak.

Cicadas are able to derive nutrition from the xylem thanks to bacterial endosymbionts that live in the cicada’s gut.

Cicada are known for drinking xylem from tree roots (as nymphs) and branches & twigs (as adults), however, when they are small they must rely on grasses, and possibly other small plants for nourishment.

  • Young cicada nymphs are smaller than a grain of rice when they first begin feeding so the tiny roots of grasses are the best fit for their small beaks.
  • Grass roots are likely the first roots a young cicada nymph will encounter, as they are close to the surface.
  • Deciduous trees shed their rootlets in winter months, but grasses do not (2). This is not an issue in tropical regions.

Perhaps the reason why periodical cicadas are “attracted to woodland edges and exposed aspects, especially for chorusing and ovipositing” (1) is their offspring will be more likely to find grass roots in those areas. Young nymphs would be unlikely to find suitable tiny roots deep in a shady forrest.

Once the cicada nymph is larger, they can burrow to larger and more permanent tree roots, and feed from there.

It is interesting to note that not all cicadas feed on trees. Some feed on sugarcane, which is a giant grass (we’re back to the grasses again). The Brown sugarcane cicada (Cicadetta crucifera) and Yellow sugarcane cicada, (Parnkalla muelleri) of Australia feed on the sugarcane plants and cause damage to plants.

Read more:

Do cicadas bite or sting.

Sources:

  • 1 The Ecology, Behavior, And Evolution Of Periodical Cicadas, Kathy S. Williams and Chris Simon, Annu.Rev. Entomol. 1995. 40:269-95
  • 2 Xylm Feeding by Periodical Cicada Nymphs on Pine and Grass Roots, With Novel Suggestions for Pest Control in Conifer Plantations and Orchards, Monte Lloyd and Joann White, OHIO J. SCI. 87 (3): 50-54, 1987

18 Comments

  1. Jerry says:

    Sorry about my last post – I meant fruitless bradford pear trees. I have 2 near each other and one looks like it is dying (West Virginia). Could it be the Cicadas?

    1. Dan says:

      They might feed of their roots. Most of the damage cicadas do happens when they lay eggs in the tree branches. Unless you had a lot of cicadas in your trees this year (or last), it probably isn’t cicadas that led to the death of your tree.

  2. Melvin says:

    I live in Washington DC and I Still haven’t seen them Yet. Does this mean we get a pass? Lol

    1. Dan says:

      Yes. For better or worse you get a pass.

  3. C. Hoy says:

    I’m in southern Utah and we have a large hatch. Will they damage my trees and flowers? The grandkids love playing with them!

    1. Dan says:

      the Utah varieties are a lot easier on the trees than the eastern US varieties.

  4. Gavin says:

    I fond a outbino wun

  5. Duncan says:

    Just today noticed cicadas emerging in northeastern TN (Washington county). Presume these are brood 10 stragglers (4 years early) or possibly brood 6 (due 2017 in NC) that are on the “wrong” side of the mountains! Any way of telling which brood they are from?

    1. Dan says:

      Yes the might be Brood VI.

  6. Rock Fitcj says:

    I found 12 exoskeletons on two windows in the backyard wow Never seen that many in one area!

  7. amy johnson says:

    I’ve noticed since the cicadas came out some of the other usual pests have not. the gnats have died down, no gypsy catepillars, no pinchers, no millipedes. all the bugs that plague us this time of year. is it because of the cicadas? If so I love them

  8. Wendy Seevers says:

    I find the cicadas cool. Especially when u find their exoskeletons on trunks of trees ,branches,ab under the leaves.but the ones that showed up so far,are so much smaller than in the past. Also while searching for them i noticed that many of them were still in their exoskeleton an didnt make it..

  9. Wendy Smith says:

    They are everywhere! How impressive!

  10. Teri says:

    They are on my flowers and now all are wilted. What can I do to save my flowers?

    1. Dan says:

      Try spraying the cicadas off with a hose to remove them. Make sure your plants are watered to regain any fluid loss from the cicadas hanging on them.

      1. Cathy Smith says:

        Thank you, Dan. Gettysburg PA I have literally about 150 so far.

  11. Miss Jeri says:

    They are eating my Walking Onions!!! Are they supposed to? I live in Stark County Canton Ohio, they showed up all of a sudden this morning…Help…Thank you Miss Jeri

    1. Dan says:

      They’re probably just hanging on the onions and not eating them. They can’t actually chew.

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