The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Giant Whining Cicadas Are Commonplace This Year
by Ro Wauer

Can anything think of a more appropriate name for this loud cicada? More numerous than anytime in recent years, this large cicada, known to scientists as Quesada gigas, has invaded neighborhoods throughout our area. Although individual adults are seldom encountered, because they usually perch high in the trees, the singing males can hardly be ignored. Their song is amazingly loud and high-pitched. It starts with a stutter and then ends in a sharp, loud whining sound, almost like a high-pitched motor. And it can be heard all day and all night, and even is noticeable from inside the house. One loud love song!

A couple people have asked me about this loud sound, so evident almost everywhere. Although I recognized it as a cicada, it wasn't until I asked Wayne McAlister, first class naturalist and retired professor and biologist, that I finally found someone knowledgeable enough to identify my bug. Wayne also told me that the probable reason that the giant whining cicada is not included in any of the abundant insect books on our area (that I already had poured through) is that our area is at the extreme northern edge of its range, but that it occurs as far south as Argentina. Just one more bit of evidence that our location is at the northern edge of the tropics.

Our giant whining cicada is but one of a handful of cicada species found in North America. But I am sure all my readers will agree it is one of the most obvious of all. Probably, the periodical cicada is better known because it is cyclic, appearing in the South on about a13-year schedule, although broods overlap. The shortest cicada life span is four years. Almost all the cicadas are fairly large insects, some reach two inches in length with a blackish body, some with greenish or reddish markings, four transparent wings, a blunt head with a pair of bulging eyes, and mouthparts adapted for sucking plant juices.

Cicadas are often erroroneously called locust, a type of grasshopper, but cicadas are more closely related to aphids, whiteflies, and scale insects, in the insect Order Homoptera. Although locusts can cause severe damage to crops, cicadas damage some plants only in a very minor way from egg-laying slits in their stems, often causing the tip growth to die.

The cicada life cycle is pretty much the same for all the species. Females deposit their eggs in the twigs of various trees and shrubs. The eggs generally hatch in about a month, and the stout and brownish nymphs drop to the ground where they enter the soil and feed on roots. Eventually, 13 to 17 years for periodical cicadas or four to five years for many other species, they emerge, crawl onto the tree or shrub and molt a last time into an adult and the start of a new life cycle. The hollow casings left behind are often commonplace.

Once an adult has shed its nymphal skin, it moves higher into the trees in search for a mate. The male will serenade the female by vibrating membranes on the sides of its abdomen; females do not sing. Each species produces a unique sound. The high-pitching whining of the giant whining cicada is truly unique!


At 11:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

how much longer till they are gone? they've been keeping me awake for the last week.

At 11:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you for the info. My kids and I just moved to Texas and were wondering what the noises were . I will have to google search a image to show them .

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