Some species of cicadas live about 2-5 years, while many others can live up to 17 years. Cicadas spend most of their life underground, only crawling to the surface to breed. They will live for about a month above ground before they die.
Whenever people hear the word, “cicada”, they are reminded of the extremely loud bugs that seem to show up for part of the summer and then disappear again.
Cicadas have a really fascinating life cycle. They live for years, but most of their life is spent as a juvenile underground. As soon as they become adults and crawl to the surface, they are already about to die.
There are thousands of different kinds of cicadas all across the globe. In the United States alone, there are over 200 different kinds of cicadas. However, all cicadas are similar when you consider their life cycle and way of living.
Let’s dive in.
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What Are Cicadas?
Cicadas are a type of insect that spend most of their life in the juvenile stage, although they can only fly in the adult stage.
What Do They Sound Like?
They are very good at hiding so that, many times, you’ll hear them before you see them. The sound they produce is very loud and to some people, it’s soothing, but to others, it can be quite frustrating.
Only the males create the raucous noise as they stretch their tymbals — a part of the exoskeleton capable of making noise — and release them again. In male cicadas, the tymbal is a type of membrane located in the insect’s abdomen.
Basically, the insects create this buzzing or clicking noise by vibrating their membrane — or tymbal — against their abdomen. It can be so loud that it can reach up to 106 decibels. That’s as loud as a small leaf blower!
Although the sounds produced by different cicada species sound the same to us, they are actually quite different. As with most animals, cicadas use their noises to communicate with one another.
What Do They Look Like?
There are several different species of cicadas. Still, there are a few things that all cicadas have in common that you can use to identify them.
First, the sound that a cicada makes is very loud and unique. Once you’ve heard their noise, you will never be able to forget it. They also have large wings that are transparent. Because they are transparent, you can see the veins running throughout the wings.
You’ll also notice that the insects have very large eyes, but have short antennae. The exact size varies with each species, but a full grown cicada is usually about 1-2 in (2-5 cm) long. Their bodies are stout and wide, and they have broad heads.
The main difference between periodical and annual cicadas is the amount of time they stay underground before reaching adulthood. Periodical cicadas live underground for 17 years before they become adults — or imagoes — and emerge from the ground.
However, there is another difference between the two kinds of cicadas. They emerge differently. Periodicals hatch in massive numbers, which is why so many people dread their coming. Some years, certain areas may seem overrun by the sheer number of cicadas and the noise that they make.
So many periodical cicadas can emerge from the ground at once that up to 1.5 million cicadas can fit inside just one acre of land.
Make no mistake, though. Just because these cicadas only emerge every 17 years doesn’t mean that you’ll only see them every 17 years. There are different populations of cicadas that lay eggs and emerge during different years — this is called a “brood cycle”.
Brood cycles will overlap so that generally, there will be some cicadas emerging every year while some stay underground and mature.
Generally, batches of annual cicadas emerge every year. This is why they’re called “annual” cicadas despite the individual cicadas only emerging once in their lifetime.
However, there are some years where we will see a surge of cicadas, and other years where we won’t see them at all. This evolved strategy helps ensure their survival because predators do not become dependent on them. When they do emerge, predators won’t be prepared for it, leaving the cicadas with a better chance.
Why Have They Evolved This Way?
Researchers believe that periodical cicadas have evolved to hatch in such large numbers because it ensures their survival. Assuredly, many cicadas will be eaten by predators. However, when a large amount of cicadas hatches at the same time, many will survive to reproduce.
Interestingly, although cicadas can be found all around the world, periodicals are only found in North America. More specifically, they are only found in the eastern and central regions of the United States. In total, they only make up 2% of the total cicada population.
Are Periodical Cicadas Like Locusts?
Some people, particularly farmers and gardeners, may worry that large swarms of these insects may spell disaster for their plants like locusts do. Fortunately, these insects don’t eat vegetation, so they are no threat to your crop.
Instead, they feed on sap from roots, branches, and twigs, even into adulthood. This can sometimes be harmful for younger trees who are not strong enough yet to handle it. However, for older trees, this is rarely an issue.
The 17 year cicada life cycle works the same with annual cicadas. However, annual cicadas do not stay underground nearly as long as periodical cicadas. Generally, they will only stay in the nymph stage for 2-7 years before morphing into adults and emerging.
Unlike periodical cicadas who all emerge from the ground at the same time, annual cicadas emerge in small groups.
Where Do Cicadas Live?
A cicada’s habitat differs depending on how mature it is: whether it’s living above ground or underground.
At their youngest underground stage, the nymph will only burrow about 1 in (2.54 cm) into the ground. Here, they will feed mostly on the roots of grasses and flowers.
As they mature, they will dig deeper into the ground, burrowing as deep as 2 ft (0.6 m). Here, they begin feeding on the roots of larger trees and shrubs.
You can find cicadas all around the world, but they prefer environments like tropical rainforests, desert scrub, and temperate forests. When they emerge from the ground as adults, they prefer to hang out on trees whether it be in the twigs and branches, in the crown among the leaves, or just on the side of the trunk.
You will most often find them in areas where there is not much human interference since they need a long time to mature underground. For this reason, it’s not very frequent that you will notice cicadas around agricultural fields or around new homes and buildings.
When adult cicadas breed and are ready to lay their eggs, they can be quite picky about where they leave their eggs. Deciduous trees are preferred over coniferous trees.
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How Long Do Cicadas Live?
Like I covered above, most annual cicadas live between 2-5 years, while periodical cicadas live for about 17 years. However, this estimate is not set-in-stone. Depending on the type of cicada, they can live for a total of 1-21 years.
Here is the cicada life span of some of the most common cicadas on each continent:
- Magicicada septendecim: usually 17 years, but can live 13-22 years
- Magicicada cassini: usually 17 years, but can live 13-22 years
- Magicicada septendecula: usually 17 years, but can live 13-22 years
- Magicicada tredecim: usually 13 years, but can live 9-17 years
- Magicicada neotredecim: usually 13 years, but can live 9-17 years
- Magicicada tredecassini: usually 13 years, but can live 9-17 years
- Magicicada tredecula: usually 13 years, but can live 9-17 years
- Diceroprocta apache: usually 3-4 years, but can live 2-5 years
- Tibicen genera: 2-7 years
- Okanagana rimosa: 9 years
- Okanagana synodica: 17-19 years
- Cyclochila australasiae: 6-7 years
- Chremistica ribhoi: 4 years
- Amphipsalta zealandica: usually 4 years, but can live 3-4
- Hyalessa maculaticollis: usually 3 years, but can live 2-5
As you can see, most cicadas have a significantly long life span, especially when compared to other kinds of insects. Still, not many make it this long, and that’s why the females produce so many eggs.
Researchers believe that up to 98% of eggs and nymphs will die within the first two years of their life. Of that 2%, it’s likely that even fewer make it the next several years to adulthood.
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How Do Cicadas Breed?
First, of course, the males will call for a mate. I described the sound they create above: that loud, rumbling chorus they create with their tymbals. The females cannot create these sounds in return, but they will flick their wings to respond to a calling male.
Once the female has approved of the male, he will approach her, and they will join their ends together. During this process, the male will transfer sperm to the female to fertilize her eggs.
Cicadas are very vulnerable to predation during this time because mating can take quite a while.
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Cicada Life Cycle
Cicada life stages are very interesting because they spend most of their time underground. They only emerge as adults when they are ready to breed, and then they die shortly after.
- Cicadas begin as an egg: All cicadas begin life the same way — as an egg. The mother will dig a small hole into a tree where she will lay her eggs.
Female cicadas can produce up to 400 eggs at once. However, she does not usually deposit all the eggs at one location. This would spell disaster for the brood if it were to be discovered by predators. Instead, she will lay the eggs at dozens of different locations.
The growing cicadas will remain inside their eggs for 6-10 weeks before they hatch.
- The eggs hatch and become nymphs: As you probably guessed, the next thing that happens is that the eggs hatch and the baby cicadas emerge. They stay within the tree for a while, feeding on fluid from the tree, until they’re ready to move on.
- They move underground: As the baby cicadas — or nymphs — grow older, they’re ready to leave the tree and move underground. They crawl out of the opening dug by their mother, climb down the tree, and dig into the ground. They will dig until they find a tree root, at which point they will attach themselves to receive nourishment.
- They grow up: The nymphs will stay close to the tree root as they grow. They remain hidden within underground burrows near a root where they can continue to feed. After several years, they will shed their exoskeleton and enter adulthood.
- They enter adulthood: Cicadas only shed their exoskeleton and enter adulthood when they’re ready to breed. The amount of time they’ve spent underground, as well as the soil temperature both play into the time frame in which cicadas will emerge.
Cicadas only want to emerge when the conditions are perfect for them to breed. So, they will not come out until the ground is about 65°F (18°C).
How long are cicadas above ground?
- They die: Cicadas spend most of their life as a juvenile under the ground. When they become adults, they are about ready to die. Really, cicadas only emerge from their hole in the ground to breed. Afterwards, they may live for up to 6 weeks, and then they die.
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Interestingly, in some countries, humans are one of the largest predators of cicadas. Native Americans, Japanese, Papua New Guinea, and Australian people all eat cicadas as a part of their diet.
In China, the shed exoskeleton of the insects is used to create a tea. Parents will feed this tea to their babies because it is believed to help quiet them.
However, humans are not the only ones to eat cicadas. Not even close. Pretty much any kind of animal that can get a hold of a cicada will eat it. They are feasted on by many things: rodents, marsupials, mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, arachnids, and other insects.
Predators’ strong desire for cicadas is a likely reason as to why only 2% of all cicadas make it past two years of life.
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Cicadas In Culture
Despite being one of their top predators, humans have always revered cicadas for their life cycle. Particularly in the ancient world, cicadas were seen as symbols of rebirth.
In China, cicadas were considered to be pure because they feed only on dew, and they were respected because they existed high up in the trees.
They were held in high status, and rulers strived to be like them. Rulers were expected to act like a cicada by eating a healthy diet, residing high above everyone else, and keeping their eyes sharp.
In the region of Provence, France, cicadas were held in high regard as their mascot. People would create luck charms and pottery depicting the bug.
In New Zealand, a town is named after the cicadas. The town is called “Kihikihi”, the Maori word for “cicada”. Inside the town square resides a statue of a cicada as well as the “Cicada Motel”.
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1. What Insect Has The Shortest Lifespan?
Unlike cicadas, mayflies have very short life spans — shorter than any other insect on the planet.
They can live for several weeks, but like the cicada, they have a very short adult stage.
Mayflies hatch from their eggs as a nymph — a stage that lasts about two weeks and can include up to 50 molts. Once they are done molting, they’ll have entered the subimago stage where it develops its wings. The imago stage is the adult stage and may last for as little as half an hour to as long as a few days. This is just long enough for them to breed and then die.
2. How Are Cicadas Born?
The mother will lay up to 400 eggs in the crevice of a tree that she digs on her own. After a few weeks, the eggs will hatch and the nymphs will emerge.
3. How Long Do Bugs Live?
How long a bug lives depends really on which type of bug it is. Some may live for as little as a few days, like the Mayfly, or they can live for many years. Most fall somewhere in the middle and live for several months.
However, by far the longest-lived bug is the queen termite. Most queen termites live about 15-17 years, but they can live up to 30 years. Some species of African termites can live up to 50 years. Researchers suggest that they may even be able to live up to 100 years.
Coming in a very close second is the splendour beetle that can live up to 50 years. Like the cicada, they burrow into wood after they hatch and remain there, usually for 25-30 years.