Dr. Robert Norman, Clinical Professor, Dermatology, Nova Southeastern University
The southern USA is filled with the amazing sounds of nature. Our official state bird, the mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), has extraordinary vocal abilities; they can sing up to 200 songs, including the songs of other birds as well as insect and amphibian sounds.
But if you travel north of Florida, be ready for the Big Buzz—the enormous sound of periodical cicadas. Cicadas are amazing in their unique sound and fascinating life cycles. A male makes the loud buzzing sound to attract the female and is trying to be the loudest voice, competing with enormous numbers of fellow cicadas. It would be like you trying to give the most high-pitched yell in the most crowded and biggest football stadium in the world. In much of the eastern United States, they are also known for their appearance in colossal numbers (as many as 1.5 million per acre).
According to Featured Creatures, the UF/IFAS website, in Florida, cicadas are best known for their loud calls heard during the day, usually issuing from trees. Their cast nymphal skeletons are often seen on the trunks of trees or on shrubs. Although periodical cicadas (Magicicada spp.) do not occur in Florida, they merit more inquiry. There are over 3,000 known species of cicada, and Florida has 19 of those species. The cicadas in Florida are considered to be an annual species and emerge from the ground as soon as the temperature is right every year.
After growing underground and feeding on tree roots, periodical cicadas arrive topside in huge packs in the same direction and climb up trees to settle on the branches. As noted in a recent NYT article by Maria Kramer, they then “break out of their exoskeletons, at first sickly white and soft before they take on their red-eyed, coal-black adult form and fly off by the billions.”
Across much of the South, cicadas are back, with happy predators such as raccoons, turtles, and birds ready to gorge on them. As Kramer notes, individual cicadas are helpless. “When they shed their exoskeletons, their wings are wet, and they must wait for them to dry before they can fly off, making them vulnerable to predators who grab them and gobble them up. The insects also fall easily into ponds, where frogs and turtles can snatch them.”
“They’re big, they’re noisy,” said Eric Day, an entomologist at Virginia Tech. “What’s not to love about them?”
Although a periodical cicada has among the longest lifespan of any insect, only a tiny part of their days are spent in the sun. “After growing underground for 13 to 17 years, a brood will come out in one of 15 specific regions of the United States. This year, males have already started calling out to females in southwest Virginia, West Virginia, and parts of North Carolina, the mating grounds of Brood IX,” Kramer writes.
Most species of cicada spend their abbreviated time above ground in trees, where males call, males and females mate, and females lay their eggs by inserting them into the woody tissue of small branches. Adults regularly feed on xylem sap both by day and at night, but their time to feast and mate are short-lived, seldom living more than a few weeks.
Let’s hope we are free to travel more than we have in the last few months. Maybe you will hear the sounds of periodical cicadas in their enormous shouting contests during their ephemeral mating rituals.
But you can find cicadas all over Florida. How?
Get outside in the Great Florida Outdoors!
Dr. Norman is an advanced master naturalist graduate of the FMNP program from UF and a board-certified dermatologist based in Tampa and Riverview. He can be reached at 813-880-7546.