Dog Day Cicadas

Anyone can be a naturalist. On the Academy blog, our scientists and staff share their knowledge to help you develop a passion for nature in your own backyard. Entomology Curatorial Assistant Greg Cowper shares his passion for the “Dog-day” Cicada.

When Cowper thinks of summer, this noisy insect comes to mind. According to Cowper, July and August are months most commonly known for the annual emergence of this insect whose song is synonymous with summer—the Cicada.

Its song, which only the male produces, is the steady buzzing underscore of the long, hot summer months. “Their buzzing was very soothing to me as a child,” says Cowper. “It was the white noise backdrop for a sticky summer’s afternoon nap.”

Bearing the common name “Dog-day” Cicada (Tibicen canicularis), it emerges during what are referred to as the “dog days” of summer in the mid-Atlantic region, hanging around through Labor Day.

In addition to the male’s overpowering song, the Cicada also make its presence known with the discard of its alien-like pupal shell. The light brown, fragile shells are cast off when it transforms from a pupa to an adult. “These insects have a really neat metamorphosis—it’s almost spiritual in a way,” says Cowper. “They go through four stages (egg, larva, pupa, adult) and then emerge as this beautiful adult that can produce sound.”

Isa Betancourt with a cicada.
Isa Betancourt with a cicada.

Once the adults emerge, the male Cicada sings that unmistakable, buzzsaw-like song to attract a mate. The sound it makes is not from rubbing its wings together as crickets do, but by rapidly vibrating membranes called timbals on the sides of its abdomen. The male contracts and retracts the timbals, creating a series of clicks, amplified by the hollowness of its abdomen.

Cicadas aren’t easy to spot, because they are usually found high in trees. If you do spot an adult Cicada, watch for the quick rise and fall of its abdomen and listen for the corresponding change in pitch in its song.

“They’re difficult to see but the best thing to do is look for pupal shells, listen for sound, try to pinpoint where the sound is coming from, and use binoculars to scan that area of the tree,” Cowper suggests. This is the technique used by entomologists studying sound producing insects, he adds. “Just listen for them and you’ll find them,” he says.

Are you a fan of insects? Check out more stories on our blog, and save the date for Bug Fest!

Join us on August 8 and 9, 2015, for our annual celebration of insects! Enjoy new activities and shows on the grosser features of insects, stretch and pose like a phasmid in a bug yoga class, and visit the bug clinic to find out how bugs might help (or hurt) your health. Plus revisit some old favorites—back by popular demand. Talk with real scientists, learn about insects from all over the world, and see specimens from the Academy’s behind-the-scenes collections. Eat bugs, get your face painted, and relax as you enjoy a buggy show. Buy your tickets today!

This article was adapted from the Summer 2009 issue of Academy Frontiers.

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