Cicadas vs katydids: Who’s singing this summer?

As a Southerner, I take my bugs seriously and I’m not so happy about the critter situation this summer.

Evenings on the porch have been sort of quiet, as cicadas seem to be sitting this one out while the katydids have taken over. It shouldn’t be surprising, given the unique life cycles of some North American cicadas. They can have 13- or 17-year lifespans, most of which is spent underground. When they emerge, it’s like a hallelujah chorus has taken over the trees, and the very air around you shakes. I’ve heard some so far this summer but not that all-encompassing thrum yet.

“Last year, you had an inordinate number of cicadas,” said Bennett Jordan, an entomologist and staff scientist at the National Pest Management Association. “The 17-years came out last year. They’ll come out again in 2030.”

If you miss them as much as I do this year, you may need to plan a road trip to Iowa or Illinois, where 17-year cicadas have emerged; or Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky or Ohio, where the 13-year crowd is making an appearance, according to Gene Kritsky, editor-in-chief of American Entomologist magazine and author of “Periodical Cicadas: The Plague and the Puzzle.”

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In addition to the 17- and 13-year bumper crops, we do get annual cicadas that emerge each year.

“Give it a little more time. We had a lot more rain this year than we’ve had in the past,” said Kritsky, who also serves as professor and chair at Mount St. Joseph University’s Department of Biology. “It’s been a little later of a spring, slightly cooler.”

While we wait on the cicadas, the katydids, which operate on one-year life cycles, are making plenty of racket. How to tell the difference? Easy.

Cicadas sound like a tiny tambourine rattling louder and faster until it’s just a wall of sound. Exoskeletal membranes on the insects’ abdomens make the noise.

Katydids, on the other hand, have a more halting, staccato sound. Imagine a bug imitating a goat. That’s what a katydid sounds like. They sing by rubbing their wings together, like crickets do.

Credit: Ronald Billings

Credit: Ronald Billings

In each case, it’s the fellas bringing the noise, for the same reason that males of other species can get loud and showy. They’re trying to attract the ladies. Like dudes on the make cranking the volume in their muscle-car speakers, cicadas will try to out-rattle each other to seem more attractive to the females. Occasionally they will make a more insistent sound, such as when they’re warning the others that a hungry bird is on the prowl, Jordan said.

Katydids use their song mainly to get the word out. Hey, girl. Hey.

Both feed chiefly on plants. Katydids chew and cicadas suction fluids from plants. Neither is harmful to people, and cicadas in particular can be helpful.

“Cicadas do an awful lot for our ecology,” Kritsky said. “When they emerge from the ground, those holes are natural aeration. When it rains, the holes allow water to get down to roots. When a female lays eggs in trees, that tends to weaken the branch. Leaves can wither and die. That turns out to be a natural pruning.”

A fruit or nut tree “pruned” by cicadas puts out more fruit and nuts the following year, he said.

Animals that eat cicadas, such as birds and raccoons, have better survival rates when large numbers of cicadas are present, and the little bugs can make for a tastier Thanksgiving feast. No, it’s not what you’re thinking.

“Turkeys weigh more in the fall on years when cicadas come out,” Kritsky said.

They’ll generally stick to the trees, but in case a cicada or katydid gets inside, say in the mouth of your cat, don’t freak out. You can sweep them out if you have a broom handy, or you can toss a dish towel over one, scoop it up gently, toss the whole kit and kaboodle out of the house and let it wriggle free to resume its singing. (Ask me how I know.)

Both Kritsky and Jordan agreed: There’s no reason to kill a katydid or a cicada. Let’s enjoy the former while we await the latter.

“Cicadas are creatures of wonder, not of concern. Growing up I really liked the call of the cicada,” said Jordan, a Wisconsin native who usually heard them toward the end of summer. “It fit in so well with what was happening in the weather. It signals the end of summer. It was like music playing summer to a close.”