SEPTEMBER
1994

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

9-08-94

Cicadas Predict Season

I heard a cicada singing a few days ago. Not just any cicada mind you, but the first cicada of the season. It was a dog-day cicada.

This particular cicada was black with green markings and is one of a group of cicadas common during July and August. These songsters are called dog-day cicadas because they are numerous during a period of the year is known as the dog-days. This is a hot, sultry time of summer so named because Sirius, the dog star, is especially prominent in the western sky. Cicadas are well-known insects, and even if they are not seen, their songs are heard.

Some cicadas are known as periodical cicadas because they emerge in high numbers during certain periods after spending 13 to 17 years underground as immatures. The other major group of cicadas includes the dog-day cicada.

These insects are also known as harvest flies, which is a misnomer, because even though they fly, they are not insect flies. However, they do show up during the harvest season. They are also called locusts, which is also incorrect because locusts are actually grasshoppers. It turns out that the first English settlers to this continent were unfamiliar with the great masses of cicadas common in the eastern U.S. hardwood forests. Because of the singing, they were misled into believing the insects were similar to the singing long-horned grasshoppers of Europe called locusts, as these insects were in biblical times.

The European settlers also misnamed the bird we know as the robin. This U.S. bird got its name because it had a red-colored breast similar to a European robin. The robin and the cicada also share something other than being incorrectly named by European settlers. Both of these creatures are considered to be predictors of the season.

We all know that the first robin is an indication that spring is on the way. To be sure, I have wondered how accurate the robin is at predicting the demise of winter. I have seen these birds hopping around in the snow and even sitting on a nest covered with snowflakes. However, the bird's presence generally indicates that the worst of winter is over.

The dog-day cicada, on the other hand, is said to predict the fall season. In specific terms, folklore holds that when you hear the dog-day cicadas it is but a short six weeks until frost. I haven't compared the cicada's prediction of the season to the local TV weather prognosticators or even to the predictions in the Farmers Almanac. I'm not sure whether the prediction is based on when the first insect sings, or when there is a whole chorus, or when you hear the last of the cicada songs. Folklore isn't very specific in such things, however I am sure that when we hear the cicadas it is closer to winter than to spring!

 

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann