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Trusted local news leader for Prescott area communities since 1882
2:21 AM Wed, Nov. 14th

Cicadas return, bring their songs with them<BR>

According to www.desertusa.com, cicadas belong to the family Cicadidae, and the order Homoptera. They have large heads and have two pairs of wings. They have three-jointed beaks and six-segmented abdomens. These three-eyed, 1-to 3-inch-long insects "sing" by vibrating their drum-like abdominal membranes, which scientists call timbals.

Neil Cobb, a University of Arizona entomologist, said cicadas' front legs "have clasper things that help them stick onto the root."

He added that cicadas stick their beak into the root and suck water and nutrients from their host plant.

Russ Radden, a Prescott bug enthusiast and the national resource program coordinator for the University of Arizona, said, "They're really noisy. They make a high-pitched screaming noise. It's a high-pitched racket."

Radden called cicadas a "quite ugly-looking" nuisance, and said the noise will only get louder into July and through September.

Cobb said cicadas can live for anywhere from 4 to 17 years, but spend only two or three weeks of that time above the ground.

Radden called reproducing "what life is all about," and it seems to be for cicadas. They spend two or three weeks above ground singing, mating and laying eggs – but not eating.

"Cicadas are one of the few insects that have an extremely well-developed auditory mating system," Cobb said. "The males are calling and the females' ears attract them to the males."

"The female inserts her eggs into stems," Cobb said. According to the University of Arizona's Urban Integrated Pest Management Web site, a female cicada will use a "saw-like egg-laying apparatus" to make slits in branches in which to lay her 200 to 600 eggs.

According to the same Web site, when the eggs hatch, the nymphs drop to the ground and burrow down, to suck water and nutrients from the plant's roots.

"They use their piercing, sucking mouth parts," Radden explained.

Although both Radden and Cobb said that it's tough for cicadas to damage plants, a big outbreak of the insects can harm or kill young or new trees.

Once the larvae, or nymphs, mature they begin to climb the stalk of their host plant. Cobb estimates that the process from nymph to adult takes five or 10 molts, which occur underground. Then, upon crawling up the stalk of the host plant, the nymph-adult leaves another exo-skeleton behind as evidence for curious humans to find.

"I guess if you spent that much time in the ground," Cobb said, "you'd want to come out making some noise, too."

Cobb and Radden both said the two cicada species in Prescott are the Okanagana, which is 2 inches long (and buzzes and ticks), and the Tibicen Dorsata, which is 3 inches long (and squeals) – and, according to Radden, is "the biggest and most beautiful western cicada."

"You've got to remember," Radden said, "that the world is run by insects, not humans."

Luckily, cicadas aren't dangerous to humans or animals, Cobb said, and only very rarely harm plants.

Cicadas are "pretty good fliers," according to Cobb, and desertusa.com said they're active only at temperatures between 72 and 116 degrees.

Cobb said scientists "know really very little" about cicadas, and Radden doesn't seem to mind.

"They're more of a nuisance. If they're there, they're there," he said. "I just try to take 'em for what they're worth."

Summertime in Prescott brings heat, barbecues, outdoor arts and crafts shows and, of course, the songs of cicadas, which hang out underground for years and then come out sing-ing.

Contact the reporter at heller@prescottaz.com