How and why some insects sing

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I was going to title this post "Insect vocalisms", but thought better of it, because I didn't want anyone to think I was claiming any kind of linguistic quality for the mind-boggling acoustic phenomenon that I witnessed on Saturday.  Though what I heard was not language in any way, shape, or form, it did impart an overwhelming message.

I was on a long run in the mountains of western Pennsylvania.  I started out from Breezewood and headed for Bedford along Route 30 (Lincoln Highway).  As I ran happily at a comfortable clip, I was puzzled by a shrill ringing noise that accompanied me all the way.  I couldn't tell where the loud, high-pitched sound was coming from.  For awhile I thought it might be some mining operation underground, but I soon dismissed that theory because it lasted too long and I seemed to be enveloped in the noise.  All around me were forests and woods, and the constant ringing seemed to be emanating from them.

The penetrating resonance was loud and high-pitched, though not quite as high-pitched as my tinnitus, which I liken to a whistling tea kettle going off full blast in my ears.  If there was one truly good thing about the loud noise I was hearing, it is that it masked my tinnitus for a while.

Finally, at the bottom of a hill, after running about three or four miles, I spotted a woman in a car who was parked by the side of the road and had a box of mail on the passenger seat beside her.  I asked her if she was the postwoman, and she said yes.  There were no houses visible for miles (apparently only a few people live on lanes here and there tucked back in the deep woods).  I said, "Are you from around here?"  "Yes," she replied.  I said, "What is that loud, high-pitched ringing?"  She laughed and answered, "Those are cicadas.  They come every 17 years."  Ah, now I understood. We had similar creatures back in Ohio too, but we called them "seven-year locusts", though they made more of a buzzing, rasping sound than their screaming Pennsylvania cousins.  The raucous sound of the Ohio "locusts" too could be overpowering, and on hot days was quite annoying, at times almost intolerable when it reached a feverish pitch.

There must have been billions of those buggers in the Pennsylvania woods to make such an all-encompassing, cacophonous din.  The heat of the day, combined with the all-pervasive, shrill, sonic shrieking of the cicadas, made me feel as though I were having a surreal, transcendent experience.

As I ran for the next two days (ultimately the insectile reverberations persisted for 15-25 miles), I came to learn quite a bit about the behavior of the cicadas:

1. Apparently they come up out of the ground after the weather is at 64º for awhile (so people told me).

2. They crawl up on trees and climb out of (slough off) their old skins, which they leave there clinging to the bark.

3. Then they go about the business of mating, which they do tail to tail.

4. It seems that it's the guy cicadas who are making all the racket; they are, so to speak, hot and bothered, and are trying to attract the girls, so they are trying to outdo the other fellows with their frantic singing.  After they hook up — mate tail to tail (I saw many of them doing it) — their mission in this life is over, and they might as well just die.

5. They fly around clumsily for a while (occasionally one of them would bump into me) — I saw lots of them on the ground, wandering around in a post-copulative daze — but never stepped on them, both because it would have been messy and also because I wanted to be Jain-like:  let them die according to their own life cycle.

6. Sometimes the plump bugs land in the Juniata and other rivers, which makes the fish and fishermen happy.

I'm not a professional, or even amateur, entomologist, so what I've written above about the nature and behavior of 17-year cicadas may not be scientifically correct.  These are just things I saw myself or heard from the local people.

After I had a chance to sit down with my laptop, I found exactly the article I was looking for, "Why are cicadas so noisy?", by Robert Valdes, HowStuffWorks, which explains the mechanism and probable reasons why cicadas screech out their lusty chorus:

The cicada's claim to fame is its singing. The high-pitched song is actually a mating call belted out by males. Each species has its own distinctive song that only attracts females of its own kind. This allows several different species to coexist.

Cicadas are the only insects capable of producing such a unique and loud sound. Some larger species can produce a call in excess of 120 decibels at close range. This is approaching the pain threshold of the human ear! Smaller species sing in such a high pitch that it cannot be heard by humans, but may cause dogs and other animals to howl in pain.

The apparatus used by cicadas for singing is complex. The organs that produce sound are called tymbals. Tymbals are a pair of ribbed membranes at the base of the abdomen. The cicada sings by contracting the internal tymbal muscles. This causes the membranes to buckle inward, producing a distinct sound. When these muscles relax, the tymbals pop back to their original position. Scientists still don't fully understand how this apparatus produces such extreme volume.

Cicadas usually sing during the heat of the day. In addition to attracting a mate, the loud noise actually repels birds. The cicada's song is painful to the birds' ears and interferes with their communication, making it difficult for the birds to hunt in groups. Male cicadas in the same brood will stick together when calling in order to increase the total volume of noise. This reduces the chances of bird predation for the whole brood.

Even cicadas must protect themselves from the volume of their own singing. Both male and female cicadas have a pair of large, mirror-like membranes called the tympana, which function as ears. The tympana are connected to an auditory organ by a short tendon. When a male sings, the tendon retracts, creasing the tympana so that it won't be damaged by the sound.

Only a Japanese haiku could capture the essence of the cry of the cicada so perfectly:



shizukasa ya
iwa ni shimi-iru
semi no koe


sinking into the rocks,
cicadas’ cry
—Barnhill, Bashō’s Haiku, 94, #392

the stillness—
seeping into the rocks
cicadas’ screech
—Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters, 249

Sinking into the rocks,
A cicada’s cry.
—Ueda, Matsuo Bashō, 52

sinking deep into the rocks
cries of the cicada
—Shirane, Traces of Dreams, 228, 273

Lonely stillness—
a single cicada’s cry
sinking into stone
—Hamill, The Essential Bashō, 22, 143

Ah, such stillness:
that the very rocks are pierced
by cicadas’ drone!
—Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry, 356

Ah, tranquility!
Penetrating the very rock,
a cicada’s voice.
—Helen Craig McCullough, Classical Japanese Prose, 539

How still it is here—
Stinging into the stones,
The locusts’ trill.
—Keene, Narrow Road, 99

Quietness: seeping into the rocks, the cicada’s voice
—Sato, Narrow Road, 95

Penetrating the rocks,
Cicada voices.
—Stephen Addiss, The Art of Haiku


Tĩnh lặng –
Thấm vào đá,
Tiếng ve.


Cicada Voice HaikuBasho (1644-1694)
August 29, 2017 ~ suisekiblog   


Selected readings


  1. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 8:16 am

    "The heat of the day, combined with the all-pervasive, shrill, sonic shrieking of the cicadas, made me feel as though I were having a surreal, transcendent experience."

    I've written to the Mayor of Pittsburgh, and he's agreed to have this translated into Latin and French and adopted as our new City Motto.

    People outside the "sylvania" part of Pennsylvania sometimes think the 17-year cicadas are a fun little novelty, but forget that the 17-year cycle applies to each _colony_ of cicadas, not to each geographical location, so, pretty much, if you live west of the Alleghenies, it's more or less a non-stop cicada shriek-fest from June to August.

    — A Guy Whose Backyard Abuts Frick Park

  2. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 8:29 am

    On a less flippant note, I don't know much Japanese, but doesn't it seem like the most faithful translation might be:

    Penetrating the rocks,
    Cicada voices.
    —Stephen Addiss, The Art of Haiku

    ? "声" can either mean "human voice" or "bird chirp / insect chirp", so I'm not sure if "cry", "screech", or "drone" is really called for, much as one might run to those terms after having heard, say, 41 summers of the infernal beasties.

    Also interesting is the translation, from —Hamill, The Essential Bashō, 22, 143:

    _Lonely_ stillness—
    a _single_ cicada’s cry
    sinking into stone

    I wanted to find out what the character "蝉" signified, and it turns out that it's composed of "bug" (l) and "single, simple, solitary, lone" (r) ( So "lonely" and "single" fit in nicely with that.

    Finally, giving the haiku a bit of cosmic significance, it also turns out that "空蝉 【うつせみ】 (u-tsu-se-mi / "heaven cicada") translates to "this world, the real world, this mortal frame, one's present existence, temporal things, cast-off cicada shell, cicada"

    A lot going in in these compact nuggets of poetry.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 9:57 am

    And why every 17 years ? Because 17 is a prime number, and by emerging every 17 years they avoid sub-speciation. They have evolved to survive by predator satiation — by emerging in such incredible numbers that they swamp the ability of potential predators to consume all of them, thereby ensuring that some will survive to produce the next generation. If they were to emerge in smaller numbers, such as could happen if they emerged every sixteen years and sub-speciation were to take place, then their numbers might not be high enough to cause predator satiation. "Incredible but true", as someone used to say.

  4. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 10:16 am

    Math is truly a peek behind the curtain of Creation. But why 17 years instead of, say, 13 or 19?

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 10:22 am

    Benjamin Orsatti: The 13- or 17-year periods of the periodical cicadas, Magicicada, wouldn't have the evolutionary advantage that Philip Taylor explained if there were different broods in the same place. Your annual shriek-fest comes from annual cicadas, such as the genus Tibicen, the "dog-day cicadas".

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 10:33 am

    Why not 13 or 19 years ? I am afraid that I don't know. And when I asked a cicada, he said that he didn't know either …

  7. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 10:34 am

    “ We had similar creatures back in Ohio too, but we called them "seven-year locusts",”

    I’m also from Ohio (near Cincinnati) & remember when Brood X emerged in 1987*. The flying insects darkened the sky and my flute teacher’s instrument was damaged because she dropped it when she got “dive bombed” by some cicadas. I also remember the WEBN radio station doing a parody commercial of the “Snappy Tomato Pizza” tune: “Snappy Cicada Pizza — with tree delivery!” The “singing” is very shrill & loud, indeed.

    We called them locusts or cicadas, but I don’t remember the “seven-year” part.

    *I had moved to California by 2004, but I do remember a smaller brood emerging in Cleveland sometime in the 90s.

  8. Frank L. Chance said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 10:59 am

    Note however that all the cicadas referenced in haiku in Japan are the annual variety. Brood X is strictly a North American phenomenon.

  9. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 11:35 am

    The Eskimos may have 100 words for "snow" (Hey, the sound of dozens of linguists grinding their teeth in unison sounds a lot like cicadas!), but the Japanese have:

    みんみん蝉 Oncotympana maculaticollis
    唖蝉 (おしぜみ) voiceless cicada (female); Asian cicada
    油蝉 (あぶらぜみ) Graptopsaltria nigrofuscata
    松蝉 (まつぜみ) cicada abundant in late spring
    夕蝉 (ゆうぜみ) cicada singing at dusk
    にいにい蝉 Platypleura kaempferi
    春蝉 (はるぜみ) Terpnosia vacua
    蜩 (ひぐらし) Tanna japonensis
    夏蝉 (なつぜみ) summer cicadas
    秋の蝉 (あきのせみ) cicadas that sing when autumn comes
    寒蝉 (かんぜみ) cicadas which sing in late autumn
    蝦夷蝉 (えぞぜみ) Lyristes japonicus
    つくつく法師 (つくつくぼうし) Meimuna opalifera
    姫春蝉 (ひめはるぜみ) Euterpnosia chibensis
    熊蝉 (くまぜみ) Cryptotympana facialis

    Only at Language Log will one find the nexus of etymology & entomology!

  10. wanda said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 11:53 am

    @Benjamin E. Orsatti: There are 13 year cicadas.

    Why not 19? Not clear. 17 years is the longest lifespan of any cicada. There are insects that live for decades, but they are few and far between. There might be developmental constraints, or perhaps too many things start eating the nymphs when they are underground for those many years.

    I really don't know why not 11 or 7.

  11. Cheryl Thornett said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 2:28 pm

    We were in southern Spain one summer morning, sitting outside, when a high-pitched noise began, almost like an electric noise (some wires, some fluorescent lights), continuing until a cloud passed overhead, when the noise suddenly switched off just as quickly as it had started, resuming a little later. Eventually I worked out that it was cicadas responding to small temperature changes.

  12. Andy Stow said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 3:38 pm

    There are 13 year broods, and thanks to the magic of primes a 13-year brood and 17-year brood can occupy the same geographic range and only come out simultaneously every 221 years.

  13. Christian Horn said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 5:33 pm

    Knowing a bit of Japanese, and the experiences of cicada sounds, I would go with this:

    閑かさや Silence..
    岩にしみ入る soaking into the rocks
    蝉の声 bursting out: noises of cicada

  14. Frank Clements said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 9:03 pm

    Basho composed that haiku at the Risshakuji/Yamadera temple complex in Yamagata Prefecture, where it's now carved into a memorial stone on the path up to the summit. The places he visited for Oku no hosomichi all emphasize his time there when they promote themselves to tourists. He also wrote a sequence of haiku for the Dewa Sanzan, and a Betto of the Haguro complex installed a memorial to his visit in the early 19th century.

    Cicada song is very much associated with the summer in Japanese culture, and you definitely hear it in anime, dramas, and video games set then, as it in real life. It's also represented in sound effects (miiin min miiiin min) in manga. There are background noise Youtube channels with videos that specialize in cicada song and other seasonal sounds.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    June 10, 2021 @ 9:58 pm

    Frank Clements, who posted the previous comment, was inspired by it to do some more research on the cicada in Japan, primarily through the writings of Lafcadio Hearn. His essay on the semi 蝉 is online here: It ends with another Basho haiku on the cicada.

    "Koizumi Yakumo, born Patrick Lafcadio Hearn [1850-1904), was a Japanese writer of Greek-Irish descent. He is best remembered for his books about Japanese culture, especially his collections of legends and ghost stories, such as Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange"

  16. Bathrobe said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 3:03 am

    I doubt the 単 in 蝉 has anything to do with solitary or singular. It actually represents the pronunciation in Chinese, where 單 is a phonetic (ranging over the pronunciations Chan, Shan, and Dan).

  17. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 4:56 am

    Interesting article, Professor. Funny that the Greeks and Japanese have the same poetic “muse”. Wait, the Muse speaks:


    Gosh, these things are loud!
    And there’s a $&¥£load of them.
    Crunchy cicadas.

  18. Nat said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 5:18 am

    What do prime life-cycles have to do with sub-speciation? Most of the explanations I found in my cursory search have to do with avoiding predator life-cycles (which makes sense). I also saw a potential explanation in terms of avoiding hybridization between 13 and 17 year cicadas. Nothing about sub-speciation and I’m hanging a difficult time working out a potential connection.

  19. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 6:21 am


    Pure guesswork, but maybe it’s because : (1) Hybridization itself causes sub-speciation, and (2) prime cycles won’t coincide with other cycles that would be factors of those cycles (e.g. 16/8/4/2),

  20. Anthea Fleming said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 6:38 am

    As children in Melbourne, we spent happy summer evenings capturing the large Green Monday Cicadas, which were reported in 'New Scientist' as being the world's loudest insect. They are no longer common in the suburbs – too much ground sealed with concrete, too much insecticide, too much predation by European Wasps – who knows? There are many Australian species – some screech, some buzz, others merely tick.

  21. Philip Taylor said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 7:10 am

    Well, it is by no means impossible that I was mistaken (this not being anything in which I have significant expertise, only a keen amateur's interest). I will endeavour to locate the source from which I thought that I learned this, and report back if I find anything to support my earlier hypothesis.

  22. Mark P said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 8:02 am

    We had a brood emerge last summer in NW Georgia. When I took the dogs for a walk I stopped several times to listen. I noticed that although the sound was overwhelming and everywhere, it seemed that there was a particular locus where the sound seemed to originate, and it constantly moved around me.

  23. Bill Benzon said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 9:31 am

    I grew up around there (Johnstown) and remember the cicadas from my youth, and later from Baltimore, where I went to college. But not since then, having lived in Buffalo, Troy, and now Jersey City/Hoboken.

    Haven't heard any yet this year.

  24. R. Fenwick said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 10:29 am

    It's also not just about cicadas being noisy; it's about these cicadas being this noisy at this specific time. This Northern Hemisphere summer is the specific season for the emergence of the population called Brood X or the Great Eastern Brood, the single largest and most widespread population of all periodical cicadas. Because of its massive population, the Brood X emergences are quite extraordinary natural phenomena even by the standards of the periodical cicadas.

    On the topic of cicada-related poetry, Brood X events specifically have been a topic for a few more recent poets as well:

    …For seventeen years they were immune to politics and class war
    and capital taunts and labor taunts,
    And now they have come out like billions of insect debutantes,
    Because they think that after such a long wait,
    Why, they are entitled to a rich and handsome mate,
    But like many another hopeful debutante they have been hoaxed and hocus-pocussed,
    Because all they get is another seventeen-year locust.

    (Ogden Nash, Locust Lovers, Attention!, 1936)

    and just two breeding cycles later:

    …I put down my robe, picked up my diploma
    Took hold of my sweetheart and away we did drive
    Straight for the hills, the black hills of Dakota
    Sure was glad to get out of there alive
    And the locusts sang, well, it give me a chill
    Yeah, the locusts sang such a sweet melody
    And the locusts sang with a high whinin’ trill
    Yeah, the locusts sang and they was singing for me.

    (Bob Dylan, Day of the Locusts, 1970)

  25. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 2:40 pm

    Hang on — aren't locusts grasshoppers?

  26. Rodger C said,

    June 11, 2021 @ 3:22 pm

    Yes, locusts are properly grasshoppers. Fabre has an essay in which he gets very sore about the confusion. It contains a poem that was my first introduction to Occitan.

  27. R. Fenwick said,

    June 12, 2021 @ 5:40 am

    One could make a strong argument that the popular definition of "locust" could be broadened to any large insect capable of forming colossal swarms, especially when considered as one element of such a swarm. Certainly the term "locust" has also referred to the periodic cicadas in the US since the 18th century.

    (Similarly, certain group of Australian indigenous marsupials are widely referred to with a term of Powhatan origin referring to a different marsupial altogether, and the term is functionally no longer possible to displace. I've long since happily accepted that cladistics is functionally impossible to maintain in popular definitions.)

  28. Emily said,

    June 13, 2021 @ 10:20 pm

    Another article that may be of interest, debunking some weird Whorfian claims about the Japanese language and insect sounds:

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