Cicadas, Symphonists of Summer

Cicada shell on a mailbox in my neighborhood

Tent caterpillars are great and all, but it wouldn’t be summer without the cicada music lulling you to sleep at night. They’re freaky-loud up close, but at a distance these big bugs provide the perfect white noise for a good night’s rest.

Plus, what’s summer without the annual Easter egg hunt for cicada shells?

I don’t know that there’s any exoskeleton more popular than a cicada’s. I’ve been collecting those things since the day I learned they weren’t alive. Finding them is like God’s after-Easter epilogue egg hunt: you can find cicada shells on light posts, trees, deck railings, mailboxes, and even on the side of your house, except they’re empty like Jesus’ tomb instead of filled with coins and candy! Who wants to sign my petition to replace Easter eggs with historically accurate cicada shells?

I’m just kidding, Easter candy is the best and the eggs have their own symbolism, but I think God knew what He was doing when He made cicadas: they even encompass 2 Corinthians 5:17 – “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here!” The cicadas leave their old lives as nymphs behind, literally shedding their past and living as new, flying, musical creatures, very similarly to how someone who comes to know Christ and follows Him sheds their old life of sin and death and becomes a new person, forgiven and full of life!

As beloved as their songs and shells are, cicadas are kind of intimidating in person. I’ve mentioned that they’re incredibly loud, but they’re also pretty large. If its mandibles could open wide enough, I bet a cicada could swallow a cockroach whole… I mean a clutter cat whole. We’re calling them clutter cats now (#respectthecluttercats). In case you’ve never seen a cicada before, they’re typically various shades of green and about as wide around as my thumb, although their big heads are often wider. They have large, golden wings and big, red or gray eyes – in other words I think dragonflies and cicadas ought to swap names.

Although I’ve known for a while that cicada shells are simply empty exoskeletons, there have been a few moments in my life when I’ve wondered otherwise. One time, my brother and I were walking through the neighborhood and came across what appeared to be a big beetle crawling across the sidewalk. As we approached it, we were shocked to see that it was actually a dark cicada shell crawling slowly across our path like some sort of zombie-bug.

We knew it couldn’t actually be living shell, so we bent down beside it to examine it more closely. As it turned out, there was a reason why this shell was more coffee-colored than the traditional caramel hue of other cicada shells – it was still inhabited. The nymph inside had probably emerged from underground recently and was looking for a place to shed its outer casing.

While cicadas in their familiar flying form only live for about a month, some species will last well into their teens as nymphs before entering adulthood. These cicadas are known as periodical cicadas, and they emerge from their underground dwellings every thirteen or seventeen years. Yes, thirteen or seventeen years – and sometimes cicada broods will switch from a thirteen-year cycle to a seventeen-year cycle, or vice versa. They won’t change it to fifteen years, or twenty-two years, or eight years – always thirteen or seventeen years. Talk about having favorite numbers.

Sometimes, 13-year and 17-year cicadas will emerge at the same time in an epic surge of cicada music across the country, but they’ll rarely (if ever) meet since 17-year cicadas live farther north than 13-year cicadas. Even so, this event only happens every 221 years. The next double-cicada summer should be in the year 2115, so unless I live to be 115 I’ll just have to hope my future kids or grandkids read this blog and experience the cicadas for me.

Other cicadas, called annual cicadas, will emerge… annually. Surprise, surprise.

Although there are annual cicadas singing in your backyard every summer, these cicadas take a few years themselves to grow as nymphs underground before gaining their wings. You still hear their songs every summer thanks to multiple species of annual cicadas having different life cycles.

I bet you think cicadas make their music by screeching at the top of their tracheas or rubbing their wings together, right? Actually, both of those techniques are wrong – and only the males can sing. They make their music by flexing a membrane called a tymbal, which creates clicks that its hollow abdomen amplifies to emit mating calls or warning cries. Females can call back to the males by making music with their wings, so that was a close guess, but they don’t reach nearly the same volume as the males. Altogether, these tymbal and wing duets create the classic hum of a cicada symphony.

…Although some may argue over the quality of cicada music given that females sometimes mistake the sounds of power tools and lawnmowers for mating calls. They’ve even been known to land on people using such equipment in their confusion. As if yardwork wasn’t bad enough – in the heat of the day when we’re already dodging wasps and swatting mosquitoes, now we’ve got to watch out for swarms of cicadas in love with the lawnmower? Great.

While a group of cicadas is generally called a cloud or plague of cicadas (I prefer cloud, of course), it’s called a chorus of cicadas when the cicadas are humming together. I would like to call a group of underground cicada nymphs a taproom of cicadas, since not much is known about cicadas’ early lives except that they drink from tree roots. Get it? Drink? Taproom? I’m hilarious.

And now, I’m going to pull a plot twist on y’all – I’m not going to give cicadas a new name. “Cicada” already sounds beautiful, and it literally means “tree cricket” in Latin, which is so perfect for these arboreal insect musicians. Sometimes they’re called jarflies too, but I think we can all agree that that one belongs to the fireflies. Or are we calling fireflies “lightning beetles” now? It’s getting a little hard keeping track of all these new names. Maybe I’ll just call every arthropod a lobster and be done with it.

The next time you hear a chorus of cicadas, pause to listen to the music and enjoy the sounds of summer. And remember, you’re breaking innocent cicada hearts every time you start up your lawnmower.

3 Comments on “Cicadas, Symphonists of Summer

  1. I love hearing cicadas in the evening….sometimes the sound swells and fades. I love the “taproom” thought!


  2. You ARE hilarious:) I am currently listening to the cicadas while reading your post. It’s amazing that you saw one crawling!

    Liked by 1 person

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