How Do Crickets, Cicadas, and Grasshoppers Make Music?

Insects Sounds Are a Summer Symphony. Here's How They Play Their Songs.

Grasshopper.

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By late summer, the most common singing insects—grasshoppers, katydids, crickets, and cicadas—have begun their courtship calls in earnest and the air is filled from morning to night with their buzzes and chirps. How do these insects make their distinctive sounds? The answer varies depending on the insect.

Crickets and Katydids

Field cricket.
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Crickets, katydids, and grasshoppers all belong to the order Orthoptera. Crickets and katydids produce sound by rubbing their wings together. At the base of the forewing, there is a thick, ridged vein that acts as a file. The upper surface of the forewing is hardened, like a scraper. When the male cricket calls for a mate, he lifts his wings and pulls the file of one wing across the scraper of the other. The thin, papery portions of the wings vibrate, amplifying the sound. This method of producing sound is called stridulation, which comes from Latin, meaning "to make a harsh sound."

Only male crickets produce sounds and not all species of crickets chirp. Crickets actually produce different calls for different purposes. The calling song, which may be heard for distances up to a mile, helps the female find the male. The female responds only to the unique, characteristic sound of her own species. Once she is near, the male switches to a courtship song to convince her to mate with him—and, in some cases, the male sings a post-copulation celebratory song as well. Crickets also chirp to establish their territory and defend it against competing males.

Some crickets, such as mole crickets, dig tunnels in the ground with megaphone-shaped entrances. When the males sing from just inside the burrow openings, the shape of the tunnel amplifies the sound enabling it to travel across a broader range of distance.

Unlike crickets, in some species of katydids, the females are also capable of stridulation. Females chirp in response to the shrill of the males. The call they produce sounds like "Katy did!"—which is how they got their name. The males can expect to hear this courtship song in late in the summer.

Grasshoppers

Grasshopper.
Grasshoppers make sounds in one of two ways – stridulation or crepitation.

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Like their cricket cousins, grasshoppers produce sounds to attract mates or protect territory. Grasshoppers can be identified by their unique songs, which differ slightly from species to species. 

Grasshoppers stridulate by rubbing their wings together in the same manner as crickets. Additionally, males and sometimes females make loud snapping or crackling sounds with their wings as they fly, especially during courtship flights. This unique mode of sound production is called “crepitation,” the snapping sounds are apparently produced when the membranes between veins are suddenly popped taut.

Cicadas

Cicada.
Cicadas make sounds by contracting special muscles.

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The din of the cicada love song can be deafening. In fact, it is the loudest song known in the insect world. Some species of cicadas (Hemiptera) register over 100 decibels when singing. Only the males sing with the purpose of attracting females for mating. Cicada calls are species-specific, helping individuals locate their own kind when different species of cicadas share the same habitat.

The adult male cicada possesses two ribbed membranes called tymbals, one on each side of its first abdominal segment. By contracting the tymbal muscle, the cicada buckles the membrane inward, producing a loud click. As the membrane snaps back, it clicks again. The two tymbals click alternately. Air sacs in the hollow abdominal cavity amplify the clicking sounds. The vibration travels through the body to the internal tympanic structure, which amplifies the sound further.

Males aggregate as they sing, creating a cicada chorus known as a lek. Considering that the noise made by a single male cicada can exceed 100 decibels, you can well imagine the cacophony produced when thousands of cicadas sing in unison.

A female cicada that finds a male attractive will respond to his call by doing a maneuver descriptively called the "wing flick." The male can both see and hear the wing flick and will reply with more clicking of his tymbals. As the duet continues, the male makes his way toward the female and begins a new song called the courtship call.

In addition to mating and courtship calls, the male cicada makes noise when startled. Pick up a male cicada, and you'll probably hear a good example of the cicada shriek. 

Sources

Katydid.
Katydid. Getty Images/Johner Images
  • Elliott, Lang and Hershberger, Will. "The Songs of Insects." Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
  • Berenbaum, May. "Bugs in the System." Cambridge: Perseus Books, 1995.
  • Waldbauer, Gilbert. "The Handy Bug Answer Book." Detroit: Visible Ink, 1998.