Cicada Mania

Dedicated to cicadas, the most amazing insects in the world.

June 28, 2008

What is the purpose of cicadas?

Filed under: FAQs | Magicicada — Dan @ 11:35 am

Here’s a question we get a lot: “what is the purpose of cicadas?” It can be a loaded question, but I think people just want a concrete answer to justify the magnitude of the unusual (why only once every 17 years, why so many) or annoying (inconvenience, noise, ornamental tree damage) aspects of the 17-year cicadas. Every living thing has a reason for existing, a niche to fill, a role to play, a purpose — let’s consider how cicadas fit it to the big picture.

It helps to consider perspective when considering the purpose. I’ll break their purpose down into 4 groups, for this: critters, fungi, trees, and people. Critters first, because their relationship with cicadas is the easiest to explain.

The cicada’s purpose in terms of critters:

Cicadas provide a link in the food chain between trees and critters, which I’ll define as any animal that will eat a cicada. Critters love cicadas, and a 17-year cicada emergence is the single greatest feast of their lives. It’s like 17 years of Christmas, Thanksgiving, and birthday parties rolled into one incredible month.

Trees feed off the sun and nutrients in the soil, cicadas feed off the trees, critters eat cicadas, and alpha predators (wolves, foxes, bears, cats, game fish, people) eat critters. The massive release of food and energy that comes from a cicada emergence results in an explosion of critter populations, which in turn results in a boon for alpha predators as well.

The cicada’s purpose in terms of fungi:

I’m not a fungi expert, but I’m pretty sure different species of fungi have a grand time digesting dead cicada bodies once they’ve died and begin to rot (I’m sure the same is true for bacteria, and microscopic critters). Fungi, of course, become another link in the food chain.

There is one fungus, the Massospora cicadina fungus, that really loves cicadas. The Massospora cicadina spreads via cicada mating and destroys the cicadas entire abdomen in a matter of days. If you’re a Massospora cicadina, from your perspective, the cicadas purpose is to provide you with nourishment and a home. Gruesome, but true.

The cicada’s purpose in terms of trees:

Periodical cicadas are parasites of trees, more specifically of deciduous trees (leaves fall off in the fall) native to the region in which the periodical cicadas exist (maples, oaks, ash, etc.). The term parasite has negative connotations, but in the grand scheme of things, parasites can benefit their hosts, or other species by keeping their hosts in check.

Cicadas provide trees a service by pruning the weak branches of a tree. Cicadas lay eggs in the branch, weak branches wither and die (“flagging”), and the tree benefits from that by not having to waste energy on a weak or diseased branch.

Cicadas also do the trees a service by dying and releasing a vast amount of nutrients back into the soil. When the cicadas die, it’s like dumping bags of fertilizer around the roots of the trees. The extra nutrients should result in a spurt in tree growth and seed production the following spring, which would result in an increase in tree populations (and acorns, which critters love to eat).

A small percentage of small, weak trees will die during each emergence, particularly non-native species (like imported ornamentals). This can be frustrating for people concerned with the landscaping on their property, but in terms of trees in general, it’s not as bad as it seems. The fertilizing and pruning cicadas perform will actually benefit the older trees in such a way that will encourage them to produce more seeds the following year. Any loss of trees will be balanced by gains in the following years. Also, cicadas may do native trees a favor by weakening or killing non-native ornamental trees, which compete for the native tree’s food.

The cicada’s purpose in terms of people:

Cicadas are a food source. Many people around the world eat cicadas, and not just “on a dare”, but as a delicacy or staple food. Cicadas have made more than one appearance on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern for instance. Native American peoples also ate cicadas too — and in at least one case it kept a tribe alive during hard times. In most places, though, cicadas are not a sustainable found source, so insectivore gourmets should rely on easily farmable insects like crickets, waxworms, and mealworms.

Cicadas provide people with a job. Those people include professors and researchers like Gene Kritsky or John Cooley, scientists, and landscapers.

Cicadas provide people, including me, with a hobby. There are a lot worse things you can do with your time.

Cicadas provide artists and musicians with inspiration. There are bands and albums named after cicadas, and many songs inspired by cicadas.

Cicadas defending America? Could be. The Navy is researching cicadas according to the Massachusetts Cicadas site.

Cicadas provide memories. If you think about it, we people don’t have all that many milestone experiences in our lives: we have our first day at school, graduations, we get our first car, weddings, we buy your first house, children are born, loved ones pass away, special vacations, and maybe we experience a flood, fire or other unfortunate but remarkable events. A periodical cicada emergence is remarkable because it not only places a memorable milestone in the timeline of our lives, it places a series of them; a series of milestones, 17 years apart, and not only within our lives, but linking our historical timelines to the timelines of your children, and grandchildren. Gene Kritsky calls cicadas the insects of history, and I think you can understand why.

Recently, cicadas were discovered to have microscopic structures on their wings that destroy bacteria. This is discovery is being used to inspire medical advancements, such as antibacterial cornea replacements. Amazing.

Some papers on this topic, and other scientific uses for cicada wings and skins:

Cicadas can also be used to gauge soil pollution, as they spend most of their life in the soil they absorb the chemicals introduced into the soil from human pollution.

June 18, 2008

Close up photos of marble-colored cicada eyes

Filed under: Brood XIV | Eye Color | Roy Troutman — Dan @ 8:51 pm

High-res versions of Roy Troutman’s marble-eyed cicada photos. Fascinating. You can see a color variation in all 5 eyes!

Upclose on Marble eyed 17 year cicada

Close up of marble eyed cicada

The 17 year cicada emergence is winding down

Filed under: Brood XIV — Dan @ 7:54 am

Lisa from East End of Louisville, KY let us know that silence has returned to her area. I’m sure the same is true of the southern areas of the emergence.

Don’t forget to get a t-shirt, mug, stein, button or throw pillow to remember the experience.

June 17, 2008

Who ordered the basket of cicadas?

Filed under: Brood XIV — Dan @ 9:39 pm

No one did, but this is what Brian Oliva of Milford, Ohio finds in his pool filter every day.

Basket of Cicadas

More totally awesome marble-eyed cicada photos

Filed under: Brood XIV | Eye Color | Roy Troutman — Dan @ 10:21 am

Roy has obtained another marble-eyed 17 year cicada found by Mike & Reed Finfrock of West Chester, Ohio.

Grey Red Marble Eyed Magicicada

Red Gray Marble eyed cicada

White eyes are unique, maybe one in 100,000, but these marble eyed cicadas seem to be even more rare. They look like the red was torn away, revealing the gray below (like something you would see on a blinged out Honda Civic or an 80’s metal guitar).

June 13, 2008

A creative use of cicada skins: a cicada wreath

Filed under: Brood X | Cicada Arts — Dan @ 3:06 pm

A Cicada wreath constructed in 2004 by Jenny Pate:

Cicada Wreath

I think it’s awesome! Thanks to Jenny’s husband Bill for sharing.

Anyone else have an example of cicada arts & crafts to share?

June 12, 2008

Amazing cicada with white & orange colored eyes

Filed under: Brood XIV | Eye Color | Roy Troutman — Dan @ 8:24 pm

Here’s something that’s truly amazing — a 17 year cicada with marble-colored eyes. White eyed cicadas are rare — but a mixed color eye cicada is amazing. Roy and the person how found the cicada should go play the lottery tonight, because luck is on their side.

Marble-eyed Magicicada

June 10, 2008

Identify this cicada

Filed under: Identify — Dan @ 8:42 pm

Cicada experts: can you identify this cicada? Hint: although it has white eyes, it is not a 17 year cicada. These photos were take by John Beard in Atascosa County, TX. BTW, is the black spot in the middle of the eye technically considered a pupil? Let us know.

Mystery cicada

Mystery cicada

So when will they be gone?

Filed under: Brood XIV — Dan @ 8:26 pm

The big question right now is: “when will the cicadas be gone?” Alas, for some, their charm has dwindled.

Based on my experience maintaining this site over the past 12 years, emergences tend to last about 6 or 8 weeks from the emergence of the first adult until the last cicada dies. That timespan is for the entire emergence, covering all locations in every affected state. The emergence for you in your specific location should last around 4 weeks: 1 week to emerge, 2 weeks of singing and mating, 1 week of egg laying and dying. Most cicadas don’t follow that precise game plan, but that’s the basic idea: 4 weeks. Cicadas that emerged on June 1st, should be gone before the 4th of July.

BTW, based on the number of messages and emails I’ve received, Brood XIV appears to be a bigger event than Brood XIII. Brood XIII received more press (because it overlapped Chicago), but from my vantage point, Brood XIV is turning out to be the more exciting emergence.

White eyed Magicicada

Filed under: Brood XIV | Eye Color | Roy Troutman — Dan @ 8:05 pm

Here’s some photos of Roy’s white eyed 17 year cicadas.

White eyed 17 year cicada

White eyed 17 year cicada

White eyed 17 year cicada

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