Do Cicadas Fly? Uncovering the Secrets of These Noisy Insects

Cicadas are a group of insects in the order Hemiptera, closely related to aphids and leafhoppers, with more than 1,300 species found worldwide, primarily in tropical regions [1]. These remarkable insects captivate our attention with their loud, distinct songs and their unique life cycles.

These insects have transparent, fly-like wings which can vary in size by species [5]. Upon emerging from their nymph stage, cicadas let their wings dry before commencing flight. Some species are known for their impressive, large-scale emergences after spending years underground, while others are present annually [4].

When cicadas take flight, their main goals are to find mates and lay eggs. They use their strong wings to expertly navigate their environments, sometimes evading predators such as birds and even large wasps called cicada killers [2].

Cicada Basics

Species and Classification

Cicadas are insects belonging to the order Hemiptera and the family Cicadidae. There are two main types: annual or dog-day cicadas and periodical cicadas. Annual cicadas usually have a green or camouflaged color, whereas periodical cicadas have a black body with reddish-orange features.

Physical Characteristics

  • Size: 1 to 1.5 inches long
  • Wings: Four clear, fly-like wings
  • Eyes: Compound eyes
  • Antennae: Relatively small
  • Color: Varies by species (green, brown, black)

Life Cycle

Cicadas undergo a life cycle consisting of eggs, nymphs, and adults.

  1. Eggs: Female cicadas lay their eggs in tree branches.
  2. Nymphs: Eggs hatch into nymphs, which fall to the ground and burrow into the soil.
  3. Adults: After spending years underground (up to five years for annual cicadas and either 13 or 17 years for periodical cicadas), nymphs emerge as adults. Adult cicadas mate, and the females lay eggs to start the cycle anew.
Annual Cicadas Periodical Cicadas
Lifecycle Duration Up to 5 years underground as nymphs 13 or 17 years underground as nymphs
Emergence Frequency Every year Every 13 or 17 years
Color Green or camouflaged Black body with reddish-orange features
Activity Period Summer Spring

Example: Neotibicen is a genus of annual cicadas that are active during the dog days of summer. Their green or brown coloration helps them blend into their surroundings.

Flight in Cicadas

Wing Structure and Function

Cicadas have two pairs of clear, fly-like wings with the first pair being longer than their abdomen. The wings are folded over their back, resembling a tent. The following are the key features of cicada wings:

  • Transparent and lightweight
  • Veins provide structural support
  • Allows for efficient flight

Taking Off and Landing

Cicadas have a unique method of taking off and landing, which includes:

  • Flapping their wings rapidly
  • Lift-off from surfaces at various angles
  • An agile landing on tree branches or other surfaces

Flight for Mating and Escaping Predators

Flight is crucial for cicadas in terms of mating and escaping predators. Examples of their flight behaviors include:

  • Males flying to locate females for mating
  • Active communication during flight using songs
  • Evasive flight patterns to escape predators like the cicada killer, a large wasp that preys on cicadas
Feature Cicada Flight for Mating Cicada Flight for Escaping Predators
Purpose Attracting mates Evading capture
Speed Moderate Quick bursts of speed
Pattern Consistent Erratic

In conclusion, cicada flight is highly adapted for essential survival functions, from mating to evading predators, thanks to their delicate and efficient wing structure.

Periodical vs. Annual Cicadas

Brood Cycles and Emergence Patterns

Periodical cicadas emerge every 13 or 17 years, while annual cicadas emerge every year. These different emergence patterns result in distinctive broods:

  • Periodical cicadas: Known as Brood X, they are found mostly in the Eastern United States.
  • Annual cicadas: Also called dog-day cicadas, they can be found throughout the country.

Differences in Appearance

Periodical and annual cicadas differ in their appearance. Here’s a comparison:

Feature Periodical Cicadas Annual Cicadas
Size About 3/4 to 1 1/4 inches (19 to 32mm) long Generally larger, about 1 3/4 inches (44mm) long
Color Black body with red eyes, red legs, and red wing veins Dark green to black, with green wing veins
Antennae Relatively small Small

Behavior and Mating Calls

Both periodical and annual cicadas have unique behaviors:

  • Periodical cicadas: They swarm in large groups, creating a loud buzzing sound. Males vibrate their tymbal membranes to attract females for mating.
  • Annual cicadas: Males produce mating calls using their tympana, which are often heard in late summer. Males and females mate, and females lay eggs in tree branches.

The mating calls of periodical cicadas are generally louder and more intense than those of annual cicadas. After mating, both types of cicadas die, and their eggs hatch six to seven weeks later. The nymphs fall to the ground, go into the soil, and the cycle begins again.

Cicadas Underground

Nymph Development

Cicadas begin their life cycle as nymphs living underground. They undergo several developmental stages called instars, with periodical cicadas experiencing approximately three to five nymphal instars.

The duration of cicadas underground varies depending on the species. Annual cicadas usually spend up to five years underground before emerging, whereas periodical cicadas remain in the soil for either 13 or 17 years.

Feeding on Plant Roots

Cicada nymphs feed on the sap from tree roots using their sucking mouthparts. They usually reside at depths ranging from 1-8 feet. Damage to plants is typically minimal, as cicadas are not usually considered an economic problem in most regions. In some cases, however, heavy nymph feeding can reduce plant yields or even cause plant death.

Soil Temperature Effects on Emergence

Soil temperature plays a crucial role in determining the emergence of cicadas. Nymphs will emerge from the ground when soil temperatures reach a specific threshold, signaling the beginning of their transition to adulthood.

In summary, cicadas spend a significant portion of their lives underground as nymphs, feeding on plant roots and developing until they are ready to emerge. Soil temperature plays a crucial role in determining the timing of their emergence and subsequent transition to adulthood.

Cicadas in Popular Culture and Science

Literature and Folklore References

Cicadas have been significant in many cultures since ancient times. In some Asian cultures, they symbolize re-birth, health, wealth, and happiness. Furthermore, these fascinating insects have inspired various forms of art, including literature, music, and theater 1.

Scientific Study and Significance

Cicadas are known for their unique life cycles and the loud noises they produce. Some periodical cicadas have a 13-year cycle, while others have a 17-year cycle 2. Scientific studies have focused on understanding their emergence patterns and mating behaviors.

The loud noises cicadas produce can reach 90-100 decibels (dB). These sounds are essential for attracting a mate, with the males “singing” by vibrating a membrane on the sides of their bodies 2.

Characteristics of Cicadas:

  • Life cycles: 13 or 17 years (periodical cicadas) 2
  • Size: 1-1.5 inches long (adults) 3
  • Color: black body with red-brown eyes (periodical cicadas), green or camouflaged (annual cicadas) 4
  • Sound: courting calls produced by males 2

Pros and Cons of Cicadas:

  • Pros: Significant cultural value (literature, folklore), interesting for scientific study
  • Cons: Loud noises can be disruptive

Comparison Table: Periodical Cicadas vs. Annual Cicadas

Feature Periodical Cicadas Annual Cicadas
Life Cycle 13 or 17 years 2 Up to 5 years 4
Emergence Pattern Massive emergence (synchronized) Gradual emergence (populations emerge every year)
Color Black body with red-brown eyes 4 Green or camouflaged body 4

Footnotes

  1. Science, art and culture: Cicadas impact our lives more than just … – NSF

  2. Periodical Cicadas | Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History 2 3 4 5

  3. Cicadas | US EPA

  4. Cicadas | Home & Garden Information Center 2 3 4

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Dogday Harvestfly

 

Looks like giant fly
August 27, 2009
Keep seeing these all over my neighborhood.
Curiously, Sarah
Lansdowne, PA

Annual Cicada
Annual Cicada

Hi Sarah,
We have gotten multiple requests recently to have these giant flies identified.  This is actually an Annual Cicada, most likely Tibicen canicularis, but they are frequently called Dogday Harvestflies.  According to BugGuide:  “Explanation of Names  DOG-DAY: a reference to the hot “dog days” of late summer when this species is heard singing; at this time in the northern hemisphere the Dog Star (Sirius) becomes visible above the horizon in the Big Dog constellation (Canis Major)  CANICULARIS: from the Latin “canicula” (a little dog, the Dog Star, Sirius)  HARVESTFLY: another reference to the late season song of this species, heard during harvest time.”

Letter 2 – Dogday Harvestfly

 

Trying to identify this bug
Hello Bugman,
I was babysitting my niece and nephew and found this bug on their swing set. I’d never seen anything like it and have been trying to identify it with no success. Hopefully you will recognize it right away and put me out of my misery!! Our mystery bug was between 2.5 to 3 inches long and had a hard body with a cone like shape at its tail. I don’t know if it matters, but we live in Oakville, Ontario Canada. Thanks for any help you can give us,
Lisa

Hi Lisa,
Annual Cicadas are sometimes called Dogday Harvestflies. Though you have never seen one, we are sure you must have heard them buzzing loundly in the trees in the heat of the dog days of summer.

Update: (10/29/2006)
Cicada Identification
Hi There,
I thought I’d ID two of the cicadas you have posted on your web site. The cicada found here in the below image is Tibicen canicularis. T. canicularis is a more northern species and their range extends well into Canada. I also help to identify a lot of the Cicadas on Bugguide. Well, hope that helps.
Gerry Bunker
Massachusetts Cicadas

Letter 3 – Dogday Harvestflies Mating

 

Cicada love
Hi there, I stumbled across your site using StumbleUpon for Firefox, and was hooked. I thought I might contribute something – I found these guys on the sidewalk last summer in Ottawa, Canada. They appear to be enjoying themselves. I assume they’re cicadas, couldn’t speculate on what kind. Hope you enjoy them!
Marcus Watson

Hi Marcus,
jThanks for the wonderful contribution. These Annual Cicadas are sometimes called Dogday Harvestflies.

Letter 4 – Dogday Harvestflies Mating

 

Mating Cicadas?
Greetings "bugman" – once again!
I recently sent you a picture of a cidada husk, with a drousy bee near it in the same position, to which you were kind enough to identify the husk for me. In the same spot in my Wheaton, Illinois garden, 20 m. west of Chicago, I was today able to photograph these two insects mating. I assume they are cicadas, though their markings are different to all those on your web site. It may be common to photograph these insects mating, but I was able to take about twenty photographs, from beginning to end of the mating, until the male flew off. It was interesting that in some pictures the male is pinning the female’s wing, so she could not leave, and he was the first to take off! Please let me know if this is a particular species of cicada, and whether typical of this region. Again, you are welcome to post the pictures, if of interest.
Best wishes, John Walford

Hi Again John,
Your mating Cicada photos will be a welcome addition to our new Love Among the Bugs page as well as the Cicada page. Your cicada is one of the Annual Cicadas, also known as the Dogday Harvestfly, Tibicen species.

Letter 5 – Flying Frog!!!

 

Love your site
Thank you for this marvelous site! I learned a lot in the 2 1/2 hours I browsed it. Cute story: My daughter and friends who were sleeping over came screeching into my room one night screaming that there was a flying frog in the house. I recognized it as a cicada, but I thought the description was apt. I will be signing onto your site whenever I have an unidentified bug, AND when I just want to learn something new!
Thanks,
Lisa Lippitz

Letter 6 – Dogday Harvestfly

 

What’s this big bug?
August 20, 2009
Dear Bugman,
This morning I found this bug sitting in my driveway, it was most impressive so I decided to photograph it and it obliged. This is the largest bug I’ve ever seen in my area, and I’m sure I’ve never seen this type of bug before. I did some googling and I’m guessing it’s a type of cicada. I’d be pleased if you could give it a definite identification.
Many thanks! -Kendra
Northeastern Massachusetts

Dogday Harvestfly
Dogday Harvestfly

Hi Kendra,
We are nearly certain that this is a Dogday Harvestfly, a species of Cicada, Tibicen canicularis, though BugGuide has six pages of Cicadas in the genus and it could easily be one of the others.  Here is BugGuide’s explanation of the name:  “DOG-DAY: a reference to the hot “dog days” of late summer when this species is heard singing; at this time in the northern hemisphere the Dog Star (Sirius) becomes visible above the horizon in the Big Dog constellation (Canis Major)
CANICULARIS: from the Latin “canicula” (a little dog, the Dog Star, Sirius)
HARVESTFLY: another reference to the late season song of this species, heard during harvest time”  We responded to three other readers today who found Cicadas and thought they were flies, so we figured the zeitgeist demanded that we post an image before going to bed.

Dogday Harvestfly
Dogday Harvestfly

Letter 7 – Dogday Harvestfly

 

What is this?
Location:  Winston-Salem, NC
August 2, 2010 6:13 pm
Found this bug on my house and just wanted to know what it is?
David

Cicada

Hi David,
Now that the dog days of summer have arrived, we expect to be getting numerous requests to identify the Annual Cicadas in the genus
Tibicen, which are sometimes called Dog Day Harvestflies because of their resemblance to flies (though much larger) and their appearance toward the end of summer.  You may also hear the din the males create as they call to mates from the tree tops, sounding like a chainsaw.  We can hear our own Southern California Cicadas in the trees right now, though they are nowhere near as loud as the eastern species.

Letter 8 – European Hornet kills Annual Cicada

 

Subject: Indian or Hobomok skipper?
Location: Great Falls Park, Virginia
August 24, 2014 4:27 pm
Looking at various sources, I am not sure one can tell the difference, but do you have an opinion as to whether this is an Indian or Hobomok Skipper? Both look just like what I photographed as far as I can see. No other angles, unfortunately, as didn’t move until it flew off. I am also attaching a photo of what presumably is a Cicada Killer Wasp (it was after all, killing an Annual Cicada!), mainly because it has a great deal more yellow than any photo I can find – is this just natural variation? A difference between the sexes? Or is there a sub-species I haven’t seen mentioned?
Signature: Seth

European Hornet kills Cicada
European Hornet kills Cicada

Hi Seth,
We will address the Skipper question later, but most Skippers look alike to our untrained eye.  What you have mistaken for a Cicada Killer with prey is actually an invasive, exotic European Hornet, a formidable predator that can take down very large prey.
  According to BugGuide:  “Predatory on other insects, used to feed young.”  There is also this elaboration:  “The workers capture insects, bringing them back to the nest to feed the brood. Workers need more high-energy sugary foods such as sap and nectar, and hornet larvae are able to exude a sugary liquid which the workers can feed on.”

Letter 9 – Exuvia of a Cicada

 

Subject: What is this?
Location: Quakertown, pa
July 12, 2017 10:28 am
Found this in my backyard on a tree stump. Brown dry scaling outter cover. Prehistoric looking. Just hanging on like the picture looks.
Signature: Curiosity wants to know!

Exuvia of a Cicada

This is the exuvia or cast-off exoskeleton of a Cicada.

Letter 10 – Double Drummer from Australia

 

Subject:  very large fly/ wasp. Jan 2019
Geographic location of the bug:  North Sydney
Date: 02/02/2019
Time: 12:43 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  Hi
This bug had gathered quite a crowd as it sat on the pavement (dead or close to) owing to its size. About 4 cm long, but as you can see from the photo also very fat. Sent friend the photo and he said it is a horsefly, but it seems this one is much much larger and the head doesn’t look right for a horsefly.
How you want your letter signed:  Steve F

Double Drummer

Dear Steve,
This is neither a Fly nor a Wasp, but you are not the first person who has submitted an image of a Cicada to our site thinking it was a giant fly.  Australia has much diversity when it comes to Cicadas, and the sounds that Cicadas produce make them familiar to many folks because of the sound and not because they have been observed.  Australians have also come up with some very creative common names for Cicadas, and your individual appears to be a Double Drummer,
Thopa saccata, which is pictured on the Brisbane Insect site where it states:  “Double Drummer Cicadas are the largest cicadas in Australia. They make loudest sound in the insect world. They are brown to orange-brown in colours with black pattern. On each side of the males’ abdomen there are the small pockets, the double drums, which are used to amplify the sound they produce. Females do not have the double drums but with longer abdomen tip.   Those large cicadas may not be seen easily because they usually stay on tree top. However, we always know they were there by hearing their loud songs. Their song is loud, piercing, chainsaw-like whine, which fluctuates smoothly in pitch. Singing occurs throughout the day and also at dusk in summer season.”

Many thanks Daniel.
What a wonderful service.
Best regards.
Steve

Letter 11 – Dogday Harvestflies in NorthEast Ohio

 

Subject:  Annual Cicadas
Geographic location of the bug:  Campbell, Ohio
Date: 08/06/2021
Time: 3:30 PM EDT
Gentle Readers,
The summer symphony is in full swing here in Ohio, with singing birds and chirping insects and melodious tree frogs all adding to the rich summer sounds.  The Annual Cicadas have begun buzzing from the tall trees and last Wednesday while walking to the Four Seasons Flea Market and approaching Roosevelt Park, Daniel’s friend Sharon noticed a Cicada Nymph on the sidewalk.  After taking a few images, Daniel placed it on a nearby tree trunk so it could metamorphose without being stepped upon.

Cicada Nymph

Then Friday after returning from Rogers Flea Market, Daniel decided to sleep on the grass.  He heard a buzzing near his head and found this recently emerged Annual Cicada, commonly called a Dogday Harvestfly, in the grass with its wings not yet hardened. 

Dogday Harvestfly

While the Cicada was crawling on his hand, Daniel was able to feel the Cicada’s piercing mouthparts pressing against his skin and he recalled a letter sent by a reader long ago that included information about getting bitten by a Cicada.  That account described the bite as a stab, and not wanting to experience a similar encounter Daniel released the Cicada to a nearby pine so it could continue to harden and eventually fly away.  The Cicada quickly climbed out of reach. 

Update:  August 10, 2021
The Cicadas continue to call and they are increasing in numbers.  Today Daniel found two exuvia of newly metamorphosed individuals that shed their skin and flew off to mate and add to the summer chorus.

Cicada Exuvia

 

Letter 12 – Dogday Harvest Fly in Canada

 

Subject:  Big ancient looking bug
Geographic location of the bug:  Cape Breton county Nova Scotia
Date: 08/18/2021
Time: 11:00 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman :  Hello! I love your site. Caught a picture of this bug in my flower box.
How you want your letter signed:  Cherbear

Dogday Harvestfly

Dear Cherbear,
This is an Annual Cicada or Dogday Harvestfly.  Daniel has been enjoying their symphony from the tree tops in Ohio.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

1 thought on “Do Cicadas Fly? Uncovering the Secrets of These Noisy Insects”

  1. I like these guys because of the clear copyright infringement they have on their throax. It looks just like the McDonalds golden arches!

    Reply

Leave a Comment