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Season of the Cicada

In the eastern United States, the deafening chirp of the cicada ushers in the dog days of summer every June and July. As the heat mounts and the days grow longer, cicadas emerge from their underground hibernation to mate and molt. Their calls can be heard throughout Appalachia, and the song of the cicada has become an almost mythic attribute of the mountains. In some places, they are considered good luck; elsewhere, they are referred to as a plague. But what exactly are these harbingers of summer, and why have they become such a ubiquitous part of southern life?

Cicada

Photo by Andrew Hitchcock.

The Cicada

It is generally difficult to tell cicadas apart, but there are two main varieties: annual and periodical. Annual cicadas have lighter grey bodies, bluish colored eyes and they emerge from hibernation every year around June or July, though they sometimes make an early appearance. Periodical cicadas, on the other hand, only emerge in cycles of 13 or 17 years. All periodical cicadas in a given geographic area emerge at the same time, and this grouping of cicadas is called a brood. There are thirty different broods, and, in a given year, two or three broods will be emerging in several specific localities throughout the south. This year, periodical cicada broods are expected to emerge in several counties within North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. During cicada season, these counties will be overrun with both annual and periodical cicadas, a cause for celebration for some and discomfort for others. Unlike annual cicadas, periodical cicadas typically have black bodies and red eyes (which is why red-eyed cicadas are sometimes considered good luck). Each brood has their own song, and some cicada experts have become some adapt at listening that they can tell the difference instantly!

Though a large group of cicadas is called a “plague,” neither annual or periodical cicadas are particularly harmful. They aren’t poisonous or toxic and they don’t like to bite. Unlike locusts and other pests, adult cicadas don’t feed on crops or flowers, so they coexist well with farms and gardens. In large amounts, cicadas do make a deafening din. Their “song” is actually a mating call, and both female and male cicadas “sing” to attract a mate. Not everyone is a big fan of their pervasive chirping, but there’s no doubt that summer in the south would seem eerily quiet and empty without that familiar backdrop: the constant, comforting, and well-worn cicada song.


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