What Do Cicadas Sound Like? Listen to the Loudest Singing Insects on Earth

It was the early morning hours of April 29 when Jakob Dwight’s grandmother, Valeria Richards Maye, died in Alabama. It was also that day that he heard the cicadas singing near her house and that comforted him.

“I don’t know if they went out a few nights before,” he said. “I didn’t hear them last night.”

It felt like a kind of connection to his grandmother: Describing the sound as almost like a ray gun in a sci-fi movie or a thin sheet of metal waving, Dwight said in an interview Wednesday that he was moved to hear Sound. hum “in the sense that if people lose a loved one, they tend to have magical experiences or at least imbue things in nature with that spirit of the loved one.” He would go on to record the cicada song the day after his funeral.

This spring, when two baby cicadas emerge in a rare simultaneous event to produce a sound as loud as that of an airplane, Americans feel connected to nature and rejoice (or cover their ears) as they listen to the song on their backyards.

While some find the buzzes, chirps and trills calming or exciting, for others, insects are annoying or irritating. In one South Carolina county, residents even called the sheriff to report the strange, thunderous roar.

“These periodic cicada songs are magical,” said Wil Hershberger, co-author of the book “Insect songs.” “They are only heard when a brood emerges, and are clearly different from other annual cicada calls that we can hear every year.”

This year, the slight overlap of two broods makes it even more so. “In some places, the unique convergence of 13- and 17-year-old songs creates a truly extraordinary listening experience,” he said.

Among the 17-year cycle cicadas, known as Brood XIII, Hershberger said, there are three species, each with its own different and captivating song.

The most numerous is probably the Magicicada septendecim, he said, “with its impressive wee-oo song.” That species also has a unique mating song. “Females seem to like these enthusiastic, energetic songs,” Hershberger said.

There is also M. septendecula, which communicates in a “rather unique” song consisting of “a series of high-pitched buzzes that become faster and then end in a series of chirp-like sounds.” Then there is M. cassini, whose song is a ticking sound that turns into an ascending hum.

For the cicada species with a 13-year cycle, Brood XIX, which covers the most ground this year, John R. Cooley, a biology professor at the University of Connecticut, said some songs are similar to those of insects. with a cycle of 17 years.

In general, the songs of the Magicicada tredecula species are rhythmic frequency sweeps, while the songs of the Magicicada tredecassini species are a series of ticks followed by a frequency sweep, Professor Cooley said. He also noted that species can be active at different times of the day.

Male cicadas generally sing to mate (while Female cicadas respond with a flap of their wings.) using a special organ called the tymbal, Hershberger said, which has a covering like a drum head, and one can be found on each side of the anterior abdomen. The male cicada uses a strong muscle to attract them, causing the membranes to collapse along the ridges and generating the sound.

Cicadas are the loudest singing insects on Earth, Hershberger said, noting that “individuals can produce sounds in the 90-decibel range, that is, as loud as those of a jet engine.”

“If you’re going to be around a men’s choir singing, I would wear earplugs to protect your hearing,” Hershberger said.

At Cicadas 2024, a public Facebook group with more than 10,000 members, users have commented about the hum, describing it as endearing or deafening.

The buzzing and chirping of periodical cicadas is nothing new: those sounds have long inspired artists and musicians.

Dwight, a painter and artist who uses sound elements in his work, is unsure how he will use his recordings of Alabama cicadas. He sees himself as “a naturalist who aspires to help highlight the magic of the nature experience.”

He imagines that everything he believes will be “on the poetic and afflicted side.”

The appearance of Brood X in 1970 inspired Bob Dylan’s “Locust Day” in which he wrote that “The locusts sang a melody so sweet.” In 2021, pop star Lorde he said in an interview with Apple Music who recorded cicadas to help capture the feeling of a New Zealand summer for his song “Solar Power.”

Some find the humming sounds meditative.

In meditation apps, including Insight Timer, a popular free meditation app that has been downloaded 28 million times, recorded cicada sounds help people connect with nature. The Insight Timer has 19 tracks in its sound and meditation library that features the sound of cicadas, said Maddy Gerrard, editor-in-chief of the app.

Jonathan Adams, a musician known as Sonic Yogi who records therapeutic music and meditations, said in an email that he uses bird and insect sounds in his meditation audio “because they signal different cycles of the day and seasons.”

“These are natural indicators of these energy changes throughout the day,” he said, which can help indicate the body’s rhythms.

But it’s not all songs and sound baths: red-eyed insects can be a real nuisance to some.

In South Carolina, the Newberry County Sheriff’s Office posted a notice on social media after several neighbors complained “of a noise in the air that sounds like a siren, or a moan, or a roar.”

“The sound is that of cicadas,” the sheriff’s office said, noting that “although some find the noise disturbing, they do not pose any danger to humans or pets. Unfortunately they are the sounds of nature.”

Derek Kinkade, chief meteorologist for the ABC affiliate in Columbus, Georgia, used his Facebook page to Ask people to stop calling the police. about cicadas.

“We’ve written hundreds of stories and posts about them from the winter until now,” he said. “Other news sources have done it too. They are errors. The sound is errors.”

For some, the sound may be overstimulating. Neurodivergent children and adults, including people with autism, may find the incessant buzzing of cicadas less memorable as a summer sound and more like a waking nightmare.

Dr. Nathan Carroll, associate chief resident psychiatrist at Jersey Shore University Medical Center, said those with decreased sound tolerance, also known as hearing sensitivity, may find the constant trilling overwhelming.

Dr. Carroll said that of about 5.5 million people with autism in the United States, an estimated 60 to 90 percent have hearing sensitivity. To help those experiencing discomfort, he suggested bringing them inside and drowning out the noise with the TV or giving them earplugs or headphones to use. “Don’t minimize it,” he said. “Validate it as much as possible.”

For those without hearing sensitivity, remember there are a few weeks left in this rare dual emergency.

Hershberger recommends that, if you can, “relax, listen and enjoy this rare sonic treasure.”

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