The Lord of the Ringing: The Return of the Cicada

The last several weeks, Virginia has seen (and heard) the return of the 17-year cicada. Now that the heat of midsummer is here, it’s the very end of the season for these remarkable insects, but you can still find their molted skins and occasionally hear them. Before they completely disappear for the year, it’s worth one last look at them.

Cicadas are large winged insects with bulging eyes, but their most unique trait is their life cycle. Certain species live underground for 17 (or in some cases 13) years in their nymph form. At the end of that time, they emerge by the millions to molt, mate, and lay eggs… and of course, sing. The male cicada’s drone (one of the loudest sounds in nature) is actually its mating call. To complete their short adult life, the female lays hundreds of eggs in small tree branches, then dies. After hatching, the cicada nymphs drop from the trees and burrow back into the ground, where they will live, harmlessly feeding on tree roots, for many years. Although their adult life lasts only a few short weeks, their entire life span is among the longest in the insect world.

Cicadas are mostly harmless, although the branches of saplings and young plants can split when hundreds of cicada eggs are laid in them. For more mature plants, this may actually have a beneficial pruning effect.

Tim Carr

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