Photo from US: Insect Identification

June 17, 2008


Yes! This week, the title “Insect Identification” is really an accurate title. One of our own, Chris Flis, took this awesome photo out at the HMNS paleological dig site in Seymour, Texas, where our team is working hard to uncover new bones and fossils. This is our first insect submittal and I’m very excited because this is one incredible insect.
This is an insect that you rarely see, but find traces of them everywhere. During the warm months of the year, people all over the country come accross peculiar shells which look like bugs, but appear to be empty. As a kid, I would find these all over my grandparents heavily wooded backyard and I loved to scare my brother and sister with them. I would call them, along with about 99.9% of the population, locust shells. It was not until I studied insects in college that I discovered that locusts are a kind of grasshopper, and these shells I was seeing everywhere belonged to a bizarre little bug called a cicada. In this photograph, you can see the actual adult cicada clinging to its old shell, or exoskeleton. It is probably waiting for it’s new skin to completely harden so it can roam the forest in search of a mate.

Cicadas are insects belonging to the order Homoptera, an order containing mostly plant pests such as aphids, scale insects, mealybugs, and whiteflies. Cicadas themselves do very little damage to plants and are not considered pests. They have simple or gradual metamorphosis, meaning they have only three different life stages: egg, nymph, adult. The nymphs spend their time underground sucking fluids from roots of trees. When it is time for them to become an adult, they tunnel their way out of the earth, attach themselves to the bark or branch of a tree, and molt for the final time. The adult that emerges looks almost identical to the nymph, only larger with big beautiful wings. This always happens at night, so we don’t see the adult, just the skin they leave behind which is perfectly preserved and very crunchy. The adult males are capable of producing sound from their abdomen which they use to track down a mate. Cicadas are active during the daytime, so that VERY loud hissing sound you hear during the hottest hours of the day are lonely male cicadas. At night, we are serenaded by nocturnal crickets, katydids, and of course, frogs. There are around 3000 species of cicada, each producing a unique sound. You can click here to listen to some different cicada songs as well as some katydids and crickets. Most cicadas have a pretty long lifespan, remaining underground as a nymph anywhere from one to three years. These are known as annual cicadas and can be seen every year. This one in Chris’s picture is an annual cicada.

Now why do I say these are such incredible insects? You may have heard of a periodical cicada. These cicadas belong to the genus Magicicada which contains only seven species. There are two types of periodical cicadas; 13 year and 17 year cicadas. This means that these guys spend either 13 or 17 years as a nymph, underground sucking on roots, which is incredible. Not only do they live for an unbelieveble amount of time, their emergences are synchronized, creating one of natures greatest phenomenons. When an emergence takes place, millions of cicadas come out of the ground for several weeks providing food for hundreds of species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and other arthropods. These animals feast on cicadas until their bellies are about to pop, but they don’t even put a dent in the cicada population. So many of them die that the forest floor is covered by several inches of decomposing cicada bodies, giving the trees a tremendous dose of fertilizer that can only come from such an incredible event. This spectacle of nature can be seen in my favorite program ever, the Planet Earth series (the Seasonal Forests episode). These periodical cicadas look much different from the usual annual cicadas. They have a black body, red eyes, and orange veins in their wings. This website has a lot of great information about periodical cicadas, including an emergence chart which shows when certain broods will emerge next.

Thanks so much for sending in this picture Chris, it spurred such an interesting topic. I hope I’ve cleared up ya’lls misconceptions about cicadas and I hope you find them as amazing as I do.

Adult Cicada

Creative Commons License photo credit: trekkyandy
A Periodical Cicada

Erin M
Authored By Erin M Mills

Erin Mills received her undergraduate degree in Entomology from Texas A&M University in 2004, and after a short tour of the pest control industry, joined HMNS as the Cockrell Butterfly Center's Insect Zoo Manager in 2005. Over the years she expanded the butterfly center's live arthropod collection, developed the ever popular "Bugs on Wheels" outreach program, and continued to establish her role as HMNS's insect expert. In October of 2016, she achieved her long time goal of becoming the Director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and in January of 2021, she joined the team at HMNS Sugar Land as the Director of Nature Programming. Erin leads hikes in Brazos Bend State Park and provides fun, hands-on nature-based experiences at HMNS Sugar Land. As a Board Certified Entomologist, Erin has extensive knowledge of insect identification, ecology, plant relationships, husbandry, really any insect-related topic!

7 responses to “Photo from US: Insect Identification”

  1. Rachel says:

    What a great picture! I bet you guys have so much fun identifying all the picture people send in! One question: I thought that the order Homoptera was placed in the order Hemiptera. Is this true or not?

  2. Erin M. says:

    Yes mystery reader, recently the powers that be have decided that the order Homoptera should be merged with the order Hemiptera (true bugs: stink bugs, leaf-footed bugs, assassin bugs, etc…) Since the two orders are very similar. However, some entomologists, like myself, prefer to keep them separate. I believe that they are different enough to be separated into two distinct orders. Plus that’s how I learned it in school!

  3. I live a few hundred miles from Seymour, Texas… in Lubbock, Texas. That makes me next door, by Texas standards! LOL. The cicadas are very common here, of course. I’ve seen their shells, and the live cicadas in trees, and flying (they don’t seem to enjoy flying too much) all my life.

    My question… I think I may have observed that when the sun is shadowed by clouds, the cicadas start their chirring. I was noticing this yesterday, when I was sitting here at my computer, working on my blog. I told my friend, Melody, who happens to be a biologist, etc. etc. She is a keen observer of nature. (I think I’m not too bad, either)

    Anyway, when the clouds moved away from the sun, and the heat came back, they seemed to stop. I am not entirely sure if they heat or light influenced them, but they are rather simple creatures, and I know that heat and light does sometimes affect in this way. After I told Melody about this, she thought she observed it, as well.

    Of course, a few minutes of observing the possible “phenomenon” doesn’t mean it’s real. Just wondering if you know more about this.

    Thanks for an interesting blog. I did try to find more on Google, but nothing seemed to come up.

    Robert Terrell

  4. Stacy says:

    I have just started homeschooling my 5 year old and for a month or so we’ve been doing a nature walk to study what’s around us. I was so glad to read that I wasn’t the only one who had incorrectly labled the cicada as a locust! I remember seeing their ghostly shells when I was younger. So since I had labeled the cicada a locust, it’s been a bit challenging to turn my son’s thinking around! Thanks for the info – it was helpful for us in our study today.

  5. Erin M. says:

    Hello Robert and Thanks for reading! That is certainly an interesting observation. I actually haven’t heard of that before. Most of the times that I’ve heard cicadas have been when the sun is shining since we’ve had relatively little cloud cover around here this summer!

    Cicadas are known for making noise during the hottest part of the day and they actually thrive in the warmer temperatures. There are several factors that can effect their singing though. Location, temperature, humidity, availability of females, time of day, etc. Because of these things, it’s hard to pin down a theory about this! If you contiunue to experience this, let me know, it may be worth looking into!

  6. Debbie D says:

    I am a few miles north of Saginaw, Tx. What Robert Terrill reported is exactly what is happening in this area. You can find the shells & live locusts in the trees, but they remain pretty quite during the heat of the day, but at dusk (7p m) till Dark(9-10pm) they are quite loud. Thank You, for having this sight. It is an insect that I have enjoyed all my life.

  7. Suzie B says:

    So cool, I just took a picture of this, they are on my fence side by side. I knew they were locust just didn’t know that the one had come from the empty shell. I have never seen them that close to each other.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Become An HMNS Member

With a membership level for everyone; Don't just read about it, see it.

View All Membership Levels

Editor's Picks The Real Moon Hoax That You Haven’t Heard Of Is Darwin relevant today? Oh The Hermannity! The Story of Houston’s Most Beautiful Green Space A Few Member Benefits Most HMNS Members Don’t Know About What The Loss Of The Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro’s Collections Means To The World What Is The Deal With Brontosaurus?!
Follow And Subscribe

Equally Interesting Posts

HMNS at Hermann Park

5555 Hermann Park Dr.
Houston,Texas 77030
(713) 639-4629

Get Directions Offering varies by location
HMNS at Sugar Land

13016 University Blvd.
Sugar Land, Texas 77479
(281) 313-2277

Get Directions Offering varies by location
George Observatory

21901 FM 762 Rd.
Needville, Texas 77461
(281) 242-3055

Get Directions Offering varies by location

Stay in the know. Join our mailing list.