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June 28, 2015

What do Cicadas Eat and Drink?

Filed under: 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 mouthparts 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.

Cicadas 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 the roots of grasses in those areas. Young nymphs would be unlikely to find suitable tiny roots deep in a shady forest.

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

44 Comments

  1. I had dozens of cicadas on my ostrich fern I photograph them on Friday there were so many it looks like an invasion. Today those Ostrich Ferns are all curled up and turning brown. I can’t imagine it was caused by anything other than these cicadas they look so healthy and fine just a couple days ago.

  2. Debi Dowling says:

    They are all over the coleus in the garden; the plants are seriously wilted. I guess this plant can be added to their food list? Didn’t know coleus were sap producing. Interesting event!

  3. Dawn Eggen-Mona says:

    Can you tell me where to find a list of which shrubs the are vulnerable. I already know which trees. I have about 180 newly planted trees and shrubs, all native to my area if Maryland. I need to know which one I need to cover and which to skip. I am already covering all the trees.
    Do I need to cover:
    Oak-leaf hydrangea
    Ninebark
    Viburnum
    Gray dogwood
    Fothergilla
    Beautyberry
    Wax myrtle
    Bayberry
    Inkberry
    Winterberry
    Chokeberry
    Spicebush
    Bottlebrush buckeye
    Serviceberry
    Laurel
    Azalea
    Rhododendron
    Grow-lo sumac
    Clethera
    Itea

    Thank you so much if you can answer this!

    1. Dan says:

      @Dawn — I honestly don’t know, which is why I’ve been asking folks to speak to arborists, landscapers, tree experts, etc.

      Personal experience: I’ve seen them kill branches on hardwood trees — oaks, maples, dogwoods, etc. I can’t remember if they did any damage to my laurel, azalea, or other let’s say “shrubs” — but I personally didn’t lose a single tree or plant. Your experience might vary, so talk to a landscaping plant expert.

    2. Dawn Eggen-Mona says:

      Okay thank you

  4. Judy Goldblum says:

    Can you build a habitat inside for a wondering Cicada. I built a Slug environment and my wonderful slugs are 2 years old. They both burrow but I don’t want it to be a schmorgasbord. We take a great deal of care to make the wonderful visitors comfortable. Can you lead me to more information on habitats for these wonderful visitors. I love every thing that walks crawls or slither through my yard. I hope someone will contact me to maximize the bug accomodations. Slugs are wonderful. cured a 3rd degree oil burn on my hand but going to the slug pods and having a few walk over waxless wax paper with cold water on it. I just use it to but on burns and have avoided having a skin transplant. In just a day and a half it healed. However the moment I put some of their secretion on the burn the pain subsided almost instantly. Judy Goldlbum drlollipop@aol.com

    1. Dan says:

      Here’s what I’ve done in the past. I get a small maple tree, like 3′, and put it in a pot. Water it. Enclose it in a small cage made of some kind of netting they can’t get out of.

  5. Rich says:

    We cut down a dead oak tree last year. Did the tree dying kill the cicada underground?

    1. Dan says:

      Sometimes, but often the cicadas find roots from other trees or use grass roots when there’s no other choice. As long as they didn’t dehydrate, they probably have enough fat to survive.

  6. Rachel says:

    I live 45 minutes N of DC. We are due the 17 year Cicadas this year. I bought 3 esplaired fruit trees to plant this year. Should I keep them in their pots till the cicadas come and go?

    1. Dan says:

      It might not be a bad idea. They’re usually gone the last week of June.

  7. Looni says:

    They will not bite nor sting what they like to do the most is piss on you when they fly away from you they leave you with a squirt if pee..

  8. Susan Hawthorne says:

    I was gathering some Swiss Chard from my garden and found two on the back of a chard leaf!
    There weren’t any on anothers. If they can drink from grasses can they from Swiss chard?

  9. Adanna says:

    Ik they eat xylem but how do I give that to my cicada

    1. Ruth F. says:

      I don’t know ether, maybe give them maple syrup. Maple syrup is only boiled down sap, maybe that will work?

      1. Dan says:

        They like the first layer of sap called xylem, which is thinner and more fluid, like water with some electrolytes and amino acids. The more maple syrupy sap is called phloem.

    2. Marooon124 says:

      You can put it on a tree and let it feed, then take it back inside

  10. Beth says:

    Appears we are not in the area for the 17 year but I know we have had them in the past. A question I have is people I know own a vineyard and many of their vines have died. They blame it on the 17 yr cicada getting ready to arrive. I disagree. Is it possible that they are killing the vines? Everything I read makes it seem unlikely.

    1. Dan says:

      @Beth, seems unlikely, but I wouldn’t rule it out without inspecting the vineyard, roots, and soil. If they planted their vineyard where groves of trees once stood, the cicadas might try to feed on the roots. Could be something else like the Spotted Lanternflies.

  11. Darlene Hutchison says:

    Thank you for the explanation of our chicadas. These facts are so interesting 😂
    I have always liked them.

  12. zoe says:

    I love cicatas

  13. Annie Reynolds says:

    Hi Dan! I live in the town of Lakehead, in Northern California, the north end of Lake Shasta.
    We have a year round running creek behind
    our house. There are a lot of fir trees, black oak trees,
    and redwood trees all around the house. I had found quite a few eckoskeletons down in my rock garden near the creek and have been hearing a loud clicking noise from the trees all around the house. I’m picking up dead ones in the driveway now to show my husband that doesn’t believe they are in the trees!
    It sounds like there must be hundreds of them. I hear them but he says he doesn’t! What can I do to protect my redwoods that are around my house? I’m worried about them! Thank you!

    1. Dan says:

      @Annie — the clicking cicadas belong to the genus Platypedia. The most common species is called Putnam’s cicada https://www.cicadamania.com/genera/species.php?q=P.+putnami+putnami#soundzone

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. Gavin says:

    I fond a outbino wun

    1. Mark Miller says:

      Do you still have it? I’d like to see a photo of an albino.

  18. 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.

  19. Rock Fitcj says:

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

  20. 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

  21. 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..

  22. Wendy Smith says:

    They are everywhere! How impressive!

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

      1. manuel says:

        what cicadas eat

        1. Dan says:

          They eat by drinking xylem which is a variety of plant sap. Once they drink it bacteria in their gut process it into food for the cicada, like how bacteria help termites digest wood.

          Above ground they drink sap from tree branches and live off the fat stored in their bodies.

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