Posts Tagged 'cicadas'

Nymph, in thy orisons

nymphsNymphal husks of the Dog Day or Annual Cicada (Tibicen sp.), and the Periodic, 17-Year Cicada (Magicicada sp.). The Dog Day husk is from last August, if not the one before that, but its toes are still quite sharp. They don’t cut the skin, but they sure do cling to the little nooks and crannies.nymphsTibicen on the left. A bigger animal in every way. Center and right are Magicicada. Note the slight size differential between these two Magicicada husks. I can’t tell the husks apart, but there are three species expected on Staten Island: M. septendecim, M.cassini, M, septendecula. This is the guide I’m using for the adults. They all have different songs.wingsCicada adults have two pairs of wings. This is one pair, one of many we saw Monday; most predators rip or clip these off, and all the recipes you see are for the de-winged insects. wingsMagicicada forewing and hindwing (or underwing).


MagicicadaSeventeen years later, the genus Magicicada cicadas have emerged for the brief but glorious finale to their lives. Staten Island is the local epicenter for Brood II. Yesterday, Chris the Flatbush Gardener and I went in search of them, following an article in the Times that sent us to Clove Lakes Park. We scouted the north end of the park and found no sign of them. We went down to the southern end of Clove Lakes, and parked on Royal Oak Road, across the street from the park. The car was beside a tree, the front right wheel close to the curb. I called Chris’s attention to this, so that we wouldn’t run into a piece of broken curb on the way out. Then, looking down, I said, “They’re everywhere!”MagicicadaAll over the grassy bit between the road and sidewalk; there were easily thousands of them to be seen as we walked a few blocks. Most were the shed nymphal husks, split down the back.Magicicada MagicicadaMany of the husks were on the ground, but some were still attached to the trees. They climb up to latch onto something before they transform into adults, which essentially break out of the body of the nymph.MagicicadaThere were also bits and pieces of the adult cicadas all over the place.arm3They are being devoured, by pretty much everybody: birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians; (“Not by me!” says a friend emphatically). Their massive numbers are their strategy for getting through this gauntlet of predators.MagicicadaWe neither saw, nor heard, a single live adult. Those that survived the rough passage from nymph to adult, and into the safety of the trees, were quiet. We need some more heat, and more cicadas, before the roaring begins. This week is going to get hot and I suspect the next two weeks will be cicadamaniacal. We did find one living nymph. It’s on my arm in the picture at the beginning of this post, as well as here:MagicicadaThe tiny bark-grasping feet create an interesting sensation on the skin. But they’re harmless. Although this one did seem to excrete on me…


“The air here is filled with their din. They come out of the ground at first in an imperfect state, and crawling up the shrubs and plants the perfect insects burst out through the back…. Their din is heard by those who sail along the shore from the distant woods. Phar-r-r-oh. Phar-r-oh.” ~ Henry David Thoreau, during the 1843 emergence of Brood II on Staten Island, where he was living at the time.

There are three species of periodical cicadas on Staten Island, our local epicenter for Brood II’s emergence this year: Magicicada septendecim, the most common and widespread species; M. cassinii; and M. septendecula, first recognized on the island in 1979. Staten Island is a hot spot for cicadas in more ways than one. Local naturalist William T. Davis was one of the world’s premier cicada specialists, naming many new species and building up one of the great world collection of cicadas:cicadasA selection of North American cicadas from the Staten Island Museum‘s collection. Visit the museum’s cicada blog for more information.mud chimneysThese are some samples of the mud chimneys the Magicicada nymphs build as they prepare to emerge from their long subterranean portion of their lives.

But what’s up with the periodicalness of periodical cicadas? They come in two flavors: 13 and 17 year. (Annual cicadas are also periodical, emerging every 3-7 years or so, depending on the species; one brood or another is emerging every year, though, so these are always with us.) Brood II is a 17-year emergence. But the animals may switch back and forth, alternating between 13 and 17 years, depending on climate and other cues. Also, the genetic difference between broods/species is notable, meaning they have been doing this for millions of years. Check out this link for some interesting thoughts and research on the subject. Insects that emerge every year can prime the pump of predators; i.e. a good year of prey will most likely lead to a good year of reproduction for predators, so that in the following year, there will be even more predators for the prey. Staggering reproductive years by such time spans is a way of completely out-foxing the fox. Prime number intervals, btw, like the components of today’s date 5/1/13, which works better Euro-style: 1/5/13 — although, of course, 1 isn’t a prime.

Happy May Day, citizens.

Cicada Preview

People are getting hopped-up about Brood II of the 17 year cicadas, emerging soon near you here on the East Coast. I can tell, because I’ve gotten a lot of search hits on the subject of cicadas. But most of my cicada posts are about the annual cicadas and their predators. I’ve never seen a periodical cicada.

But here’s a taste:cicadas98This is a photograph (check it out, kids: silver-coated paper; ask your parents about this technology invented by Cro-Magnon) from a friend who was living in Missouri in 1998, when the stars aligned both a 13-year AND a 17-year brood emergence in the region. (Said friend is still traumatized and asks that his name not be used.)

The shed exoskeletons of the 17-year old nymphs pile up around the tree; the black-bodied, red-eyed adult cicadas, which are smaller than our annual green cicadas, are on the tree.cicadas1998I gather your suburban types are going to be bitching about the mess made by the potentially massive emergence of Brood II — which probably makes great compost — but I can’t help that. The planet doesn’t belong to them, nor any of us.cicada1998I say, bring on the Seventeeners!

Brood II is Nigh

Alan ArkinThe cicadas are coming, the cicadas are coming!

Brood II of the 17-year genus Magicicada cicadas is due to emerge this spring. This is an East Coast brood. Depending on the temperature, this could happen anywhere from mid April to May, but with our warmer and warmer springs the breakout will probably begin on the earlier side. They will last into June. These cicadas have spent the last 17 years, yes, 17 long years, underground, feasting on the juices of tree roots. They are now ready to emerge, shuck their nymphal husks, unfurl their wings, and rock. And they should be doing it en masse, I mean, carpeting the ground, swarming on trees, piling up in the gutters, driving some hominids absolutely crazy with their numbers and their noise.

But I can’t wait.

Staten Island is the best place to see and hear and try not to crunch on this spectacle in the city. In anticipation, the Staten Island Museum has just opened a periodical cicada exhibit. The Museum is reputed to have the world’s largest collection of cicada specimens. Some broods, as the generational cohorts are called, have been arriving years earlier than expected; the reason seems to be milder and milder winters. But Brood II is on course.

You’ve seen a lot of cicadas (and their killers) on this blog, but they have all been the annual, dog-day species. Theses spend several years underground as well, but with generations each year, examples of them emerge each year in late summer. I have never seen the red-eyed, orange winged 17-year Magicicadas. Field trips will be in order.

Two excellent resources for more information are and, where cicadamaven Dan also includes some pointers for potential June brides.

Corner Pocket

A fairly representative New York City tree pit. “Pit” is definitely the word here. The hard-pan — calling this sterile-looking misery “soil” would be an insult — looks like something you’d find in a draught-ravaged desert. And you can imagine the gallons of poisonous dog piss that have been poured in over the years. It’s amazing that anything can manage to live in such grim conditions, but this London Plane tree (thought by some to be a spawn of the Industrial Revolution) manages, and so can whatever that is growing on the street-side.

But what’s this on the lower left hand side?Something likes this dirt.

My attention was initially drawn to this by the beast itself. A one and half inch long Cicada-killer wasp. When completed, there will be a tunnel from 30-70″ long, running 12-15″ below the surface. There are an average of 15 cavities off these tunnels, each containing 1-3 paralyzed cicadas and a single wasp egg. The eggs hatch in about three days, and the larva munches on cicada meat for about ten days, then it spins a cocoon and over-winters.

I’ve seen a lot of these big wasps in Prospect Park recently. (Although fearsome-looking, they are harmless to us lumbering mammals.) But I haven’t heard a lot of cicadas so far. This has been a bumper year for a lot of lifeforms, but this doesn’t seem to be the case for cicadas. Of course, August may see a lot more emerge, but time’s pressing, ye bugs! And there is much to be done! Annual, or dog day, cicadas emerge every year, as their name suggests, but each year’s cohort, or brood, has spent several years growing underground in their nymph stage. Last year was a good year for cicadas. Coincidentally, the wasps probably ate well. With their yearly cycle, it makes sense there should be a lot of wasps now. But now they have to make do with a the generation of cicadas from some time back (2-5 and 3-7 years are the numbers I run into on-line), which may not have been a boom year.A day later, in the rain.Third day of observation. Stain on bluestone not caused by wasp. So several feet of 3/4″-diameter tunnel are obviously going to create some spoil: the pile grows. The grooved path is interesting. It happens I noticed another couple of burrows in a tree pit around the corner from this one, with similarly developing paths:I’d like to see the wasp in action, but I don’t want to hang around and call attention to myself and thus the wasp because I fear not everyone would be so observational. Exterminators do good business for themselves by massacring these wasps, especially when they congregate as they sometimes do when the location is right.

Dog Days

Yesterday, I heard two cicadas whining at the northern end of the Promenade. These were my first of the year. Today I heard one in the back of the apartment, way back, beyond the Back 40 Inches. On a walk through the neighborhood, I spotted a couple of the huge cicada killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus) on Joralemon Street. The one above was perching on sunflower leaves. Quite unscientific, but this date is just a day before I noted my first cicadas last year. You can read more about cicadas and their killers (actually paralyzers; it’s the larvae who eat and kill the cicadas) here.

Summer Whine

You spend years underground sucking on tree roots. And then, three to seven years after birth (accounts differ; species differ), you dig your way up out of the ground. How do you know when to do this? You’re in your fifth instar stage, by the way, when you do. Assuming you haven’t been concreted over, you crawl up a tree, probably the same one you’ve been living off of. There, you grasp hold on the bark and hey! presto-change-o! bust out of your nymph exoskeleton. Unfurl your wings, pump them up, harden your new exoskeleton. Then, get down to business: start looking for a mate. You’ve got about a month to live.

In the picture above, note the three ocelli, simple eyes, between the bulging compound eyes.

The males are the ones that make that hot summer sound, the crazy high-pitched buzzy whine, rising and falling above us in the trees. They rapidly vibrate stiff timbal membranes (in an alternating pattern) on their first abdominal segment; air sacs help to amplify the resulting high decibel in-and-out clicks. A maddening sound ~ I sometimes think that if locked in a room with nothing else to hear I would quickly go insane (hip-hop would do it faster, though) ~ but glorious, too, and the females, well, they think it’s damn sexy. Life, mighty life! Mate, lay your eggs in the trees and bushes; first stage nymphs drop down to the ground to burying themselves. See you in the future.

Or else birds eat you. I watched a house sparrow battle one recently. Five eyes are not always foolproof. Or big wasps paralyze and feed you to their young. Either way, you’re still part of the Great Recycling. Or you just die for reasons unknown — old age? — and fall down to the sidewalk where I find you.You can see the feeding beak here between the first set of legs. The mark of a true bug, that. The powdery white is a waxy build-up, but I’m not sure what function it serves. This is a male. Are those plate like structures skirting over the abdominal segments the timbals? (See below for side-by-side with a female specimen I found a few years ago). I sexed these with this page from the University of Michigan.

Dog-day cicada, Tibicen canicularis, I think, although the Tibicen genus looks confusing (T. linne, T. pruinosus, T. winnemana). 2″ long x 1/2″ wide. Found on Pacific Street, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Even though these spend years in their underground nymph stages, they are considered an annual cicada species because a different generation or brood emerges each summer. The periodic cicadas, meanwhile, spend 13 or 17 years underground (!); they are distinguished by their bright red eyes, dark bodies, and sudden omnipresence. Locally, our area is scheduled for emergences in 2013 (Brood II) and the big year, 2021 (“The Great Eastern Brood,” Brood X).
Female on left, male on right. She’s bigger, which means you can also more readily see the two pairs of wings. I don’t know if these are the same or different species.
All my posts on cicadas and their killers.

City Habitat

Now that the dog-day cicadas have started to emerge from their years underground, their enemy, the cicada wasps, emerge as well. And since our street trees have roots, which is what the cicadas live on while during their nymph stage, so too do our streets have these wasps.Yesterday, walking in Brooklyn Heights, I found a strip of untended, weedy earth swarming with Sphecius speciosus. I stood among them. They are solitary nesters, but will congregate in favored habitat, particularly when the city limits such habitat. There were at least twenty of these enormous wasps patrolling the area. Their nest holes pocketed the bare patches of ground.Since our annual cicadas are about two inches long, these predatory wasps are big. Most of these looked to be just under an inch and half; they are the largest wasp species in our area. Now, they’re relatively harmless to us, but quite intimidating to the unknowing (I’ve seen people run), so I hope the panic-stricken and/or ignorant don’t notice these and call the exterminator. These wasps are probably the males, who don’t sting anything, staking out nest holes for the females. Check out The Flatbush Gardener for more details (and similar analogies).

The females use their stingers to paralyze cicadas, which are evidently hunted by sight. (I’ve seen a fair number of cicada exuviae on trees on this particular block.) The wasp then drags, no easy task, the live prey down into her burrow, which can reach four feet underground. She deposits an egg on the cicada. The resulting larva eats the cicada and winters underground in a cocoon. The adult wasps eat nectar.

The lives of the predatory and parasitic wasps, of which the cicada killer is just one of the most obvious, may be pretty horrifying to some of you. Charles Darwin thought these animals put another nail in the coffin of the idea of a benevolent God ordering a moral universe. After all, the cicada is eaten alive. The hornworms in the Back 40 last year were eaten inside out, then became a host for a bloom of cocoons. Who needs Alien? (Vegetarians and vegans all too often don’t realize that their diet is predicated on the destruction of untold billions of invertebrates, and lesser numbers of vertebrates, in sometimes slow and agonizing ways.)

Nature is amoral, a state we often confuse with immorality, something we humans, of the myriad of life forms we know, alone can lay claim to.

(All my cicada and cicada killer wasp posts.)

Cicadas Emerging

I was away from the city for a week, so the cicada I heard on Henry Street this morning was my first of the year. It’s the quintessential sound of summer.

Previous cicada-themed posts: Part I, Part II, and Part III.


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