Periodical Cicadas, Genus Magicicada

Habits and Traits of Periodical Cicadas

Periodical cicada.
Periodical cicadas remain underground for 17 years, before emerging en masse. Getty Images/PhotoLibrary/Ed Reschke

When thousands of singing insects emerge from the ground at once, you'll notice. The seven species of insects in the genus Magicicada are known as periodical cicadas. They live most of their life cycles underground, appearing for just a few months every 13 or 17 years. Some people call them 17-year locusts, but this is a misnomer. Periodical cicadas are not locusts at all, and belong to an entirely different order of insects – the Hemiptera.

What Do Cicadas Look Like?

Adult periodical cicadas are striking creatures. They have robust black bodies with orange stripes on the underside of their bellies, and prominent red eyes. Their translucent wings are webbed with orange veins, and each forewing is tipped with a black W-shaped marking.

To determine the sex of an adult cicada, simply look at its belly. Female cicadas have a groove on the undersides of their abdomens, while males have a square flap. 

Periodical cicadas may be misidentified as other annual cicadas that emerge at the same time. To differentiate periodical cicadas from annual cicadas, learn to recognize their songs

How Are Cicadas Classified?

Kingdom - Animalia
Phylum - Arthropoda
Class - Insecta
Order - Hemiptera.
Family - Cicadidae
Genus - Magicicada

What Do Cicadas Eat?

The cicada diet is strictly vegetarian. During their long period underground, nymphs nourish themselves by sucking the juices from plant roots. Adults also feed on plants, choosing fluids from the tender growth on woody vegetation.

The Life Cycle of Cicadas

During their long stay underground, nymphs go through five stages, shedding their nymphal skins at the end of each stage. In the year of emergence (usually either 13 or 17 years), the nymphs construct tunnels to the surface. Once soil temperatures reach 64 degrees Fahrenheit, the cicadas emerge en masse after sunset and head to the nearest vegetation. They molt a final time to reach adulthood.

The new adults, which are white after emerging, remain on the vegetation for 4-6 days, allowing their new exoskeletons to darken and harden. Once the teneral period ends, males start singing their calling songs. The males aggregate as they sing, creating a deafening sound. Collectively, they move and sing until they find receptive females.

Mated females excavate Y-shaped nests in living twigs on shrubs and young trees. In each nest, the female may lay up to 20 eggs; during her short lifetime, she can lay as many as 600 eggs. Within 4-6 weeks, the adult cicadas die.

In midsummer, eggs hatch. Nymphs about the size of small ants fall to the ground, and burrow in the soil to begin their long stay underground.

Special Behaviors of Cicadas

Periodical cicadas rely on their numbers for defense. With bright coloring and a loud call, a lone cicada would quickly be eaten. When thousands emerge at once, the cicadas can sacrifice some individuals without impacting the survival of their species.

Periodical cicadas lack any true defense mechanisms, and are safe to handle. They do not sting or bite, nor are they toxic. If you happen to pick up a male, he may protest by emitting a loud buzz, which can be a bit startling.

Where Do Cicadas Live?

Periodical cicadas are unique to eastern North America. The three 17-year species populate the northeast, primarily. Four 13-year cicadas live in the south and midwest regions.


  • Borror and DeLong's Introduction to the Study of Insects, 7th edition, by Charles A. Triplehorn and Norman F. Johnson.
  • Genus Magicada - Periodical Cicadas, Accessed online June 6, 2008.