Sex and the cicada (plus updated coverage map)

May 29, 2013

Cicada sex: Face the opposite direction and use the wings for a little privacy.  Cicadas will reproduce during the next several weeks in the eastern United States and produce billions of nymphs.  This photo was taken May 26, 2013 in Manassas, Virginia.  (Kevin Ambrose)

If there are cicadas where you live, then the legions of bugs are buzzing around with one purpose: to reproduce.

The ground temperature officially reached 64 degrees last week and Brood II of the 17-year periodical cicadas have emerged in large pockets from Virginia to New York.  The cicadas will have four-to-six weeks to mate and lay eggs before they die.  For the next several weeks, their mating calls will be quite loud.  In July, however, it gets quite bleak for the bugs.  They all die.

I asked entomologist, Russ Horton, from HomeTeam Pest Defense, a few questions about cicada reproduction:

1) How do cicadas find a mate?  Horton: “The sound organ in cicadas are tymbals, drum-like structures on the abdomen of the insect.  In most species only males have these organs.  They are used to “call” females or warn of nearby predators.   Females can make sounds but they “flick” their wings to answer the mating calls.”

2) How do cicadas reproduce?  Horton: “After the male and female cicada have mated (3-5 days) the female will lay fertilized eggs 24+ in slits cut with her ovipositor on small live twigs.  It takes roughly 6 weeks for the eggs to hatch and the nymphs to emerge.”

3) How do cicadas lay their eggs?  Horton: “The female uses her ovipositor like a saw to cut into living twigs and branches. There are groves within the slits and she lays the fertile eggs in these grooves.  Picture a two dozen chicken egg carton purchased at the grocery store but obviously much smaller in size.”

4) How long do cicadas live after they mate?  Horton: “They live 2 to 6 weeks.”

5) After mating, do cicadas die of starvation?  Horton: “Adult cicadas have piercing sucking mouth parts and they feed on xylem of plants for their nutritional value.  I would say they die simply because their life cycle has expired.”


Mating cicadas in Manassas, Virginia.  (Kevin Ambrose)

Competing cidadas:  Left – a pair of cicadas come together;  Middle – the mating cicadas are attacked by another cicada; Right – the cicada couple is left alone to reproduce nymphs.  (Kevin Ambrose)

The male cicada has lost his grip and is suspended by the female cicada.  The cicada couple in the lower right corner of the photo are slightly better anchored in the tree.  (Kevin Ambrose)

A 4×4 in Manassas, VA is a perfect mating location for a pair of cicadas. (Lewis Golladay)

The cicada coverage map for the Washington, D.C. area is displayed above.
In Virginia, cicadas are south of a line that extends from Springfield to Burke to Fairfax Station to a few miles north of Manassas. The line continues west-northwest to the Blue Ridge mountains near Front Royal. There is also a small pocket of cicadas in Arlington. To the east, cicadas have emerged across a large area of southern Maryland. To the north, cicadas are found in north-central New Jersey and southern New York. (Kevin Ambrose)

The Washington area appears to be the land of the haves and have-nots when it comes to cicadas.  If you don’t see or hear cicadas in your backyard then you probably in live Brood X territory and you are spared from the current class of Brood II cicadas.  If, however, it sounds like an alien spacecraft is landing in the trees above your house then you live in Brood II territory and cicadas are abundant.  (See video below for cicada sights and sounds.)

The chorus of cicada mating songs is quite loud in Manassas, Virginia. (Kevin Ambrose)

After my last cicada update, I received dozens of reports from Washington Post readers.  Here’s one example from Shaima in Springfield:

You would not believe the swarm of cicadas we have in our backyard in Springfield. I live off of Rolling Road near Old Keene Mill road and it’s gross how many hundreds if not thousands of them are around. No matter how much you try to sweep and kill, there are just more and more. What’s funny is you go up the street to Old Keene Mill and you won’t see a single one.

I made a quick visit to Rolling Road and Shaima was correct, the cicadas were everywhere.  I took a few photos which are included below and I also collected some cicadas for a weekend fishing trip. 

Cicadas are an excellent bait.  Fish love them, the bugs are easy to catch, and they don’t fly away when you open the bait box.


This photo shows a box of cicadas to be used as bait for fishing. Cicadas make excellent bait. These cicadas were collected in Springfield, Virginia.  Note, even with the box open the cicadas don’t fly away.  (Kevin Ambrose)

Cicadas cover a playset in Springfield, Virginia. (Kevin Ambrose)

A cicada scene from Springfield, Virginia. (Kevin Ambrose)

I also received dozens of email from people in New Jersey and New York who read my last post and their message was that Brood II has emerged in full force in northern and central New Jersey and much of southeast New York near the Hudson River.

I find it interesting that there is a large gap in Brood II cicada coverage in extreme Northeast Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Central Maryland.  Much of that area is Brood X territory.  Brood X cicadas were last seen in 2004.  I’ve yet to confirm a location that has an overlap of both Brood II and Brood X cicadas.

If you have cicadas, they will be around for a few more weeks.  Endure the humming roar and then the rest of the summer will be cicada-free.

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