A Delightful Dog Day Afternoon

Happy are cicadas' lives,They all have voiceless wives.

Dog Day Cicada

Dog Day Cicada

So goes the saying (though probably only known by bug enthusiasts!), but as I walked along the paths at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge's East Pond, I wondered about the female cicadas' point of view.  The males' songs were deafening!

This pleased me to no end.  Back around July 4th I noted the first cicada song outside my apartment window, but all summer the neighborhood has been eerily silent.  Cicadas are one of my favorite insects, and their tunes provide the perfect summer soundtrack.  I do not have an answer yet on my locals, but clearly the Jamaica Bay cicadas are happy and active.

Not as newsworthy as their relatives -- the Periodical Cicadas, with the groovy genus name of Magicicada -- our usual summer friends are commonly called Dog Day or Annual Cicadas.  At least 75 cicada species are found in North America; our yearly locals fall into the Tibicen genus.  According to both experience and one of my favorite books, Garden Insects of North America by Whitney Cranshaw, cicadas are more often heard than seen. 

Except this time.

Dog Day Cicada

Dog Day Cicada

Walking along the trails towards the East Pond enjoying their song, I noticed one high up in a tree.  Then another, and another, so many closer to eye level, buzzing around my head back and forth to branches.  It was like a cicada Lollapalooza!  The birds weren't so cooperative that day, but the cicadas more than made up for it.

As inferred by the poem, cicada song is the male's domain and his way to attract a mate.  The sound is made by a percussion-like ribbed membrane called a tymbal found on each side of the thorax or abdomen, and activated by a large muscle.  The song is then amplified in the air-filled abdomen.

What a treat to see this in action, and I was thrilled to try out the video function in my camera.  Click on the video below to see a single cicada and later, two starting to mate (and dropping on me -- notice my surprise!).  Apologies in advance though: still learning the video feature on my camera so it's a little fuzzy, but you'll still get the general idea:

While watching all the cicadas literally dripping from the trees, I noticed that wing flicking motion that you can see in the video.  The flicking is followed by the rattling abdomen and song, leading me to think that these are males.  However, as I researched this behavior online (sigh ... most research dealt with the perennial favorite, the Periodical Cicada), one site indicated that wing flicking is a female behavior.  Clearly not from the video -- both are flicking wings. Perhaps both males and females participate in this action to ... um ... say "Hello"...?

Ah, science and nature.  When one observation leads to a hundred questions!

Cicadas are sometimes incorrectly called locust, an unfair nickname since not only are they in completely different insect orders (locust, such as grasshoppers, are in Orthoptera, while cicadas are in Hemiptera) but also are much less damaging than ravenous, chewing grasshoppers.  Cicadas tap into tree branches and twigs with their sucking mouth parts and feed on fluid from the tree's xylem, the tissues that conduct water and nutrients throughout the plant.

After mating, the female deposits eggs into tree bark with a needle-like organ called an ovipositor (again, damage is usually minor).  Nymphs, or immature cicadas sans wings, will emerge from eggs then drop to the soil and bury themselves in, sucking sap from tree roots.  Once mature, they will emerge from their nymphal exoskeleton as a mature -- winged -- cicada and the cycle begins again.  Dog Day Cicadas take 2-5 years to develop from egg to adult.

When it comes down to it, there's really nothing better than these summer friends.  They're attractive, don't bite, cause minimal damage that is not even noticeable, and continue the natural food chain by becoming a meal for several bird species.

And who doesn't like an insect that can carry a tune for our lazy summer afternoons?

Dog Day Cicada

Dog Day Cicada