Summer Songs

Summer Songs

By Marilyn Shy, Kalkaska Conservation District

It’s the height of summer, a hazy humid day. You hear it, kind of a buzzing sound that seems impossibly loud, coming from a tall tree. What could it possibly be? Why, it’s a cicada, of course.

Cicadas (pronounced SICK-KAY-DUZ) are insects, best known for their songs. Males sing by flexing their tymbals, which are drum-like organs found in their abdomens. Small muscles rapidly pull the tymbals in and out of shape. The sound is intensified by the cicada’s mostly hollow abdomen.

In Michigan, there are several varieties (species and subspecies), although there are 190 varieties of cicadas in North America. Worldwide, there are 3,390 varieties. Researchers find new varieties every year.

Cicadas begin life as a rice-shaped egg. The female deposits it in a groove she makes in a tree limb. The groove provides shelter and exposes tree fluids which the young cicadas feed on. At this point the young cicadas look like a termite, or a small white ant. Once it is ready, it crawls from the groove and falls to the ground where it will dig until it finds roots for food. It will typically start with smaller grass roots and work its way up to the roots of the host tree. The cicada will stay underground from 2 to 17 years, depending on the species. 

After this time, the cicadas emerge from the ground as nymphs, climb the nearest available tree, and begin to shed their nymph exoskeleton. Free of their old skin, their wings inflate, and their adult skin hardens. Once their new wings and body are ready, they begin their brief adult life.

Adult cicadas spend their time in trees looking for a mate. Males sing, females respond, mating takes place, and the cycle of life begins again.

On a website called Cicada Mania, observers can record when they first hear cicadas singing in their area, and how many they see. The website includes frequently asked questions and answers. One such question is, “Do cicadas pee?”, and the answer is yes, cicadas do pee. But no worries, it is just watery tree sap, passing through their insect bodies. It is called “honeydew” and feels like soft raindrops. It is colorless and odorless.

On a trip to Costa Rica last spring, I experienced the honeydew while walking on a jungle path near the town of Uvita. Thousands of cicadas were present up high in the trees, singing from sunup to sundown. The sound they made was deafening. I have never heard anything quite like it, and it made your ears feel as though you were in the middle of a rock concert. Feeling the honeydew fall on you was refreshing in the stifling heat. It took awhile to figure out what it actually was.

And I am very grateful that in Michigan we just hear the sound of one cicada at a time.