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Cicadas

I think this is the earliest I’ve seen a cicada. This one was fresh out of its exoskeleton. You can tell by the bent wing and its pale colors. It probably dropped from its exoskeleton just a few minutes before I saw it. Once its wings dried and straightened, it flew off to complete its lifecycle. That’s when the singing starts. It won’t be long now until we hear the “buzz” of cicadas again on the plains.

Have you heard any cicadas, yet? Me neither, but I did find one on my patio this past weekend. This is early in the summer to see this creature, but it was there.

Cicadas make their life around trees. They lay their eggs cracks within the bark. When the eggs hatch, the newly hatched nymphs drop to the ground and burrow down up to eight feet. They live most of their lives underground surviving by sucking the sap of the tree via the roots.

When the time comes for the nymph to emerge, they dig a tunnel to the surface, climb up into the tree and attached themselves. They ultimately molt, and we see the abandoned exoskeletons, hanging on the bark of the tree.

I was out working in the yard this past weekend and noticed a cicada on the cover of one of my pieces of patio furniture. It was just out of its exuviae, the hard exoskeleton you see hanging on the side of trees. When we normally see this, it is an empty shell. It is the last stage in the lifecycle of a cicada.

This cicada had just shed its exoskeleton because the skin was still wrinkled and wet. It may have been mere minutes since it dropped from its exuviae. It is rare to see a cicada at this stage of its life. I think it was one of the dog-day cicadas, a Resh cicada to be specific.

Seeing this, I’m guessing it won’t be long, during the hot days later this summer; we will begin to hear male cicadas calling for females from high in the trees. They make their sound by vibrating a special membrane on their abdomens. The sound of cicada is quite distinctive and is the loudest of all insect-produced sounds.

The cicada is part of a huge family if insects, numbering some 1300 species in the world and 190 or so in North America. The ones we see here in Nebraska are mainly dog-day cicadas that appear almost every year. These cicadas have a life span of five to seven years.

Their sound is loud enough that it has been documented to cause permanent hearing loss in humans. An Australian species of cicada, the Double Drummer can get to 120 decibels at close range. That’s like standing next to a chainsaw

At the other end of the sound spectrum, some smaller cicada species produce such high-pitched sounds that it is inaudible to humans. And…there are a lot more species of cicada than most people know.

Most people hear the mention of cicadas and think of what is known as periodic cicadas, those that appear every 17 years. Actually, as periodic cicadas go, there are 17-year cicadas and 13-year cicadas. The 17-year cicadas are generally found in the northern and eastern part of the United States. The 13-year cicadas are most often found in southern states, but some overlap may occur.

There is a long repeated folk legend that says when you hear the first song of the dog-day cicadas; it means there's just six weeks until frost. Well, this may not be a precise predictor of frost and the coming of winter, but there is some merit to the claim. Dog-day cicadas, as their name implies, appear during the long, hot summer days of July and August.

Throughout history, cicadas have been part of folklore and myths around the world. They have been used as money, as ingredients in folk medicine, to forecast the weather and just to be enjoyed as messengers of song in China.

Cicadas were documented as being eaten in Ancient Greece. Today they are still a part of cultural diets in China, Latin America and Central Africa. If you have ever seen the mini-series Lonesome Dove, there is a scene where Woodrow and Gus are in San Antonio looking for a new cook. They are talking to a potential cook and he offers them a sample of what he’s cooking.

Both Gus and Woodrow took and sample and thought it was sweet and quite tasty. It turns out to be cicadas…Woodrow was not as impressed when he found out what he was eating!

If you haven’t heard a cicada yet, it won’t be long. They are a sign of summer’s ending and a harbinger of cooler temperatures to come.

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