For those who make their homes on the east of the Mississippi, the sound of the cicadas is synonymous with summer—for better or for worse.
In certain years, the summer months are marked by the resurgence of the periodical cicada (the annual cicada emerges every year between April and May). The more observant among us will likely discover abandoned shells adhered to tree trunks, but observant or not, everyone is likely to notice the swarm of insects that tend to appear as if from nowhere. They’re not magical insects, they’ve just been burrowed underground.
But how long do cicadas live, exactly? Below, you’ll learn about the different types of cicadas, their impressive lifespans, and the reason behind their recognizable sound.
What Are Cicadas?
Cicadas are winged insects that are found all around the world. There are more than 3,000 species of cicada, each varying greatly in color, size, and shape. Cicadas fall within two categories: periodical and annual. When it comes to cicadas, their species affects their lifecycle substantially.
15 states in the eastern part of the United States are home to periodical cicadas. These insects are non-invasive, meaning they are native to the area and do not cause substantial issues within the ecosystems in which they reside. In fact, the cicadas can actually benefit the environment by aerating lawns and improving water filtration into the ground, creating nutrient-rich soil as they decompose, and serving as food for birds. They don’t sting or eat away at gardens, so they’re essentially harmless to us humans. These positives are important to keep in mind—many have mistaken cicadas for locusts, which do have the potential to cause substantial agricultural harm.
To make their signature sound (usually made to attract a mate), male cicadas utilize a body part called a tymbal located beneath their wings. They cause the vibration by expanding and contracting the ribs in quickly, almost like an accordion. The sound carries—some cicadas can be heard from up to a mile and a half away.
One of the most renowned species of North American cicadas is Brood X cicadas. They are periodical, so they fall in the category that lives up to 17 years. The last time they emerged was just last year in 2021, so we’ll be seeing them again sometime around 2038.
Wait — How Long Do Cicadas Live?
Periodical cicadas possess one of the longest lifespans of any insect: 13 to 17 years! Once hatched, these cicada nymphs will bury themselves 18 inches underground and feast on roots until they are ready to emerge after their long wait. They know it’s time to come up when the ground in which they reside reaches a temperature of about 64 degrees after the harsh winter.
After emerging, the cicadas will look for a suitable place above ground to settle down and shed their exoskeleton. Once they do, they have access to their wings for the first time. After that, they only live for 2 to 6 weeks above ground before passing away—long enough for them to establish a new generation of cicadas so that the cycle can continue and a new generation of periodical cicadas that will emerge in another 17 years.
In contrast, annual cicadas only live for 2 to 5 years. Their lifecycle is quite similar to that of the periodical, just extremely condensed in comparison; the vast majority of this time is spent below ground growing and only a couple of weeks are above ground.
Cicadas may be a nuisance, but they are essentially harmless to humans and the environment. The takeaway? Live and let live—and enjoy the song of a creature that is celebrating life above ground.
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