28 April, 2011

Once Every Thirteen Years: The Great Southern Brood of Cicadas

I am visiting my Mother in Georgia this week.  Spring here is verging on summer; the azalea blossoms  have already come and gone.  While I am sorry to have missed them, I did arrive for an event that happens only once every 13 years – the Great Southern Brood of cicadas is emerging!  The first clue of the emergence that I saw was a large number of exuvia along the trail I was walking with one of my oldest friends and her sister.  Amazing that I noticed them at all because it was dusk and we were busy catching up on each other’s lives.  But, as often seems to be the case, once my eye caught one, there were exuvia everywhere.  The next few days I was ready with my camera and took hundreds of shots.  Lucky for you, I ruthlessly culled them and am presenting only the best of the best here.  ;-)

First up are the exuvia, or shells, of the last larval stage from which the adult emerges.  When I was a kid we would hook them on our clothes as decorations.  Using their specialized front legs, the larvae dig their way out of the ground (where they have lived for the last 13 years) and climb up vegetation or the occasional handy fence post and latch on.
The exuvia are very tough.

Look at those front legs!

Then the case splits open and the adult emerges pretty quickly.  They are a pale cream color when they first emerge and their wings are small.  Sometimes they don’t manage to emerge all the way, but when they do, they usually hang from their exuvium as they their wings unfurl and their exoskeletons harden.  This one just below hadn't latched on securely enough and it fell to the ground almost at my feet, the exuvium popped open, and the adult flopped out.  I moved it over to the grass and it quickly crawled away.
"Hey!  What happened?"

"This is not my beautiful home."

"This is a little better."

I love their big red eyes.  They also have 3 small red eyes that are most obvious before the exoskeleton darkens.  Their wings are gorgeous fairy wings while they are still pale.  They wear their small, dark, wing covers as epaulets.  

Folks around here call these cicadas “locusts” although they are not at related to the grasshoppers.  Cicadas are more closely related to flies.  As I mentioned earlier, this is part of the “Great Southern Brood” in the genus Magicicada.  Each cicada brood is synchronized for the year of its emergence.  The Great Southern Brood is the largest in North America.  It emerged last in 1998. 
They do cause some damage to trees and shrubs because they lay their eggs in slits they make in young stems.  But what gets most people’s attention is the deafeningly loud noise they make; the hotter it gets, the louder they sing.  Only the males sing.  As I was out walking today, someone asked me what that loud noise was.  I told them it was the cicadas and they looked at me blankly.  When I said locusts, they knew what I meant.
The trees and shrubs are covered with cicadas.
There are thousands and thousands of them in a single residential block; you can hardly take a step without crunching a cicada or its shed case.  They are a feast for some birds, and in many part of the world, the larvae are considered a delicacy for human consumption.

See you again in 2024.


  1. Fascinating stuff! Superb photos too. Thanks Wilma! :-)

  2. Wow what a fantastic event you witnessed Wilma.... We usually arrive too late in France to see the emergence of the European one, but the little one love to run after the exuvia ;-)

  3. Wonderful photos Wilma! A fascinating post and I love the big red eyes.

  4. Hey Wilma, it looks like something out of a Sigourney Weaver film.{:)

  5. Great series of pics, interesting stuff.

  6. I don't fancy eating a cicada much...........

  7. Karen -- glad you enjoyed it. :-)

    Keith -- they were so much fun to photograph, especially those that had just emerged and were still pale colored. They wanted to stay put until their exoskeletons hardened, so I could take my time with the pictures. That's rare in photographing insects!

    Chris -- I was so excited to have stumbled onto the emergence at just the right time.

    Jan -- even my Mother admited that in the photos they looked beautiful. Somehow the close up pictures minimize the "yuck" factor. :-)

    Roy -- right - small, little aliens, but much cuter. ;-)

    ST -- you can't make this stuff up, can you?

    Stu -- maybe if you fried up the larvae, they wouldn't be too bad? ummh, yeah, they would.

    thanks to all for visiting and especailly for commenting. Good to know people are stopping by!


  8. Wow! what an amazing post. The other day I noticed a few "shells" on the path in the wetlands, and I am wondering if this is something similar. we are in the middle of a locust and mouse plague here, but the colloer weather is coming, so it'll be over soon.


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