The Song of the Cicada
Many species of annual and periodical cicadas are native to North America. All adult cicadas are large, heavy, wedge-shaped insects. Periodical cicadas are black with red eyes, red legs, and red wing veins, and are about 3/4 to 1 1/4 inch long.
Annual cicadas (aka “dog-day cicadas”) are about 1 3/4 inches long, and are dark green to black with green wing veins. The cicada eggs are shaped like rice and deposited in slits the cicada makes in twigs, branches, and trunks.
Annual cicadas emerge in July and August (the “Dog Days of Summer”) and begin singing their summer love-serenade. After they find their mates, the egg laying starts. This all resembles speed dating with the eggs being laid about 2 weeks after the cicadas molt into adulthood. Over the next 30 days, each female can lay 400 to 500 eggs in groups of 10 to 25. Eggs hatch around 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 months later, then the first-instar nymphs fall to the ground and begin feeding on roots under the soil. Fully developed nymphs will emerge 2 years later and molt into adults.
When you hear the cicada love-song, look out for the cicada-killer, which many people misidentify as the yellow jacket wasp. Unlike social colony wasps, these solitary hunters are not generally a problem for humans, but prey on other insects and spiders. In her lifetime, one female cicada killer can gather 100 or more cicadas, each of which weighs about twice as much as she does. She paralyzes the cicada with her stinger and hauls it back to her nest. She brings one cicada for each of her male offspring, and two or three for each female. This hard working mama wasp knows the sex of the next egg she will lay, and stocks her nest to match. She’ll lay an egg at the base of the cicada’s middle leg and seal up the nest space that contains it. When the egg hatches into larvae it will consume a whole cicada in less than four days. Then it will “cocoon-up” in silken threads waiting to hatch out next May and June to start the hunting season all over again.
If you don’t notice the cicada killer right at first, you may spot the nesting grounds, which is where she gets into trouble with homeowners and their lawns. When females locate their preferred piece of real estate for a nest, an amazing construction process begins. She digs out n
early a half-gallon of soil for just one of her four burrows, each of which can be up to 40 inches long. She piles the tailings in a U-shaped mound at the entrance of each burrow Hence the turf damage. What makes for a good cicada killer neighborhood? Thinly vegetated, southeast-facing slopes or un-mortared retaining walls, with plentiful cicadas to hunt in nearby deciduous trees.
For more information about these two interesting insects, take a look at https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/cicada-tibicen-spspp and https://entomology.ces.ncsu.edu/2015/07/cicada-killers-are-on-the-wing/
Minda Daughtry is Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.