More than 40 cicada species live in Texas. Some can’t reach an inch (<20mm) in length (e.g., Beameria venosa) while others challenge the three-inch mark (>70mm) with ease (e.g., Tibicen pronotalis). The rest fall somewhere between those extremes.
Which ones you see and hear depend on where you are and what year it is. Some species pop up every summer (annual) while others show up every 17 years (periodical).
Of special interest is that annual cicadas do not necessarily follow a one-year lifecycle. One of the more common cicada species here shows up every year even though it matures on a three-year schedule. It’s the superb cicada (a.k.a. green harvestfly, green cicada or superb green cicada; Tibicen superba).
As I walked home one evening, I found this male singing in the dark. Only male cicadas sing.
Though I heard him as I approached, he fell quiet when I came near. He needn’t have worried since it was too dark for me to see him. Still, his song had already told me he was at eye level, so I stood patiently and waited for him to bellow his chorus into the night air.
Once he did, I knew which tree he was on, so I let the flash fly a few times to locate him, then I snapped a couple of pictures. He seemed comfortable at that point as he didn’t stop singing again until I turned to walk away. A few steps later and he was back at it.
The very next day I found this male of the same species. Unlike his predecessor, he never stopped singing even when I started poking through the bamboo to find him. Perhaps that was a sign his love life was lacking and he didn’t have time to stop wooing the ladies.
This year offered a summer full of cicada song. From dawn till dusk, from and in every direction, the varied music sounded every day, often punctuated with the panicked buzzing and abrupt silence that means another one bit the dust.
The difference from last year seemed profoundly apparent. Although no tree sounded unoccupied this summer, last year’s cicada population was anemic at best. A few songs could be heard now and again, but mostly the summer passed in silence.
That had a cataclysmic effect on the cicada-killer wasps. Their largest colony fills the air each year with more giants than can be counted; this year perhaps a few dozen of them emerged. A smaller colony a short distance away nearly collapsed: this year I never saw more than two or three wasps there at any time.
Also of interest last year was the dearth of cicada species: I never heard songs other than those sung by superb cicadas. But as this male silver-bellied cicada (a.k.a. silverbelly; Tibicen pruinosus) shows, the summer of 2009 was filled with a variety of insect music sung by various species.
This robust variety stretched from May right through September. When I visited the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on May 16, I found this not-yet-dry hieroglyphic cicada (Neocicada hieroglyphica) scrambling to climb from the pile of debris where it had fallen.
And just a few days ago as I stood on the patio, this female silverbelly made a less than graceful landing in the tree.
Ill situated to know which end was up, she tried fruitlessly to right herself. At one point I thought she might pull it off as she hung precariously sideways and faced me directly. But her near success crumbled beneath an untidy fall from the tree into the bushes below.
I laughed! She tried so hard yet still wound up demonstrating the clumsy, uncoordinated knack for which cicadas are known.
Despite her tumble, she meandered about the photinias for several minutes until coming to rest in a bit of shade. She was gone a few hours later.
I hope this explosion of cicadas helped the cicada killers recover from the devastating losses they suffered last year. After living in the midst of several colonies where summers are full of countless giant wasps, seeing their numbers reduced to pennies on the dollar this year worried me. I still don’t know if all the colonies survived.
And now that I’ve shown the hunter and the hunted, it’s time to look at the hunt.