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What Do Cicadas Eat?

Cicadas are known for their distinctive buzzing songs and periodic appearances, which have long intrigued scientists and nature enthusiasts alike. While their life cycles and songs have been well-studied, what they eat also remains an interesting aspect of their biology. In this article, we learn about “cicada nutrition”, explore what they eat, how they forage for food, how they stay hydrated, and when they feed.

What Do Cicadas Eat?

Cicada on plant
Cicada on plant | image by LadyDragonflyCC – >;< via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Cicadas’ primary food source is plant fluids, which they obtain with the help of their specialized mouthparts. Cicadas are known as xylem-feeders, which means they extract fluids from the xylem vessels of plants. The xylem is a tissue found in plants that is responsible for transporting water and nutrients from the roots to the rest of the plant. This fluid consists mainly of water, minerals, and sugars.

Adult cicadas feed on the plant fluid of young twigs growing on woody shrubs and trees. Despite contrary belief, adult cicadas don’t cause serious damage to plants when feeding. They can, however, damage plants when they cut small slits into the plant where they deposit their eggs.

Cicada nymphs don’t feed on plant stems or leaves. They instead feed on the roots of plants. Thankfully, their feeding doesn’t typically cause any noticeable damage to the plant. Nymphs have piercing mouthparts that allow them to puncture the plant’s roots and suck the fluids of the plant’s xylem.

There are certain trees that cicadas prefer over others, including maples, ash, willows, and oaks. However, cicadas are opportunistic feeders and can be attracted to a wide array of large plants.

Do Cicadas Eat Plant Leaves?

Cicadas typically do not feed on plant leaves. These creatures do not have chewing mouthparts, which are usually required to consume leaves. The locust, however, does have chewing mouthparts, and feast on the tender tissues and leaves of plants.

In fact, a large swarm of locusts can strip the stems and foliage right off of certain types of plants. Additionally, locusts and cicadas are often confused with one another.

Are Locusts And Cicadas The Same?

Desert locus and Cicada
Desert locus (Left) and Cicada (Right)

Locusts and cicadas are often confused with one another. And while they are both herbivorous-winged insects that make noise, they are actually two different types of insects. Locusts are a type of grasshopper that can change their appearance and behavior under certain circumstances.

When environmental conditions are just right, locusts can undergo a transformation known as gregarious behavior, which causes them to gather in large swarms, become extremely mobile, and have a voracious appetite. When locusts undergo this change, they can cause significant damage to crops and vegetation.

Cicadas, on the other hand, are not an agricultural threat, and they are not even in the same insect order as locusts. Cicadas have a long life cycle and spend most of their lives underground as nymphs. When they do emerge as adults, they simply feed on plant juices and make a lot of noise.

How Do Cicadas Eat?

Cicadas use their powerful front legs to pierce plant tissue and access the xylem fluid. These legs are equipped with sharp, elongated structures called stylets that function like straw-like tubes to draw up the plant sap.

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While feeding, cicadas remain stationary on the plant stems or leaves. They are not active foragers like some other insects; rather, they are more sedentary, spending a significant portion of their lives attached to the plants from which they feed.

When Do Cicadas Eat?

Cicada drinks tree sap
Cicada drinks tree sap | image by Sid Mosdell via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Cicadas are nocturnal insects, meaning they are most active during the night. This nocturnal behavior extends to their feeding habits as well. They typically feed during the nighttime hours, often climbing up trees or plants to access the xylem fluid.

This nighttime feeding behavior not only helps cicadas avoid potential predators but also allows them to take advantage of the coolness and increased humidity that typically occurs during the night

How Do Cicadas Stay Hydrated?

Cicadas get a portion of their hydration from the xylem fluid they consume. However, they also possess the ability to absorb moisture from the atmosphere through their exoskeletons. This is extremely important in humid environments where the air is saturated with water vapor. By absorbing moisture through their exoskeletons, cicadas can supplement their water intake.

How Do Cicadas Hunt?

Unlike predators that actively hunt and capture their prey, cicadas do not engage in hunting behavior as we typically know it. Since their diet is exclusively plant-based, they do not need to pursue other insects or animals for food. This is a good thing since cicadas are not equipped with the physical requirements necessary for capturing and consuming prey, such as mandibles for chewing or venom for immobilizing prey.

What Eats Cicadas?

European roller eating cicada
European roller eating cicada | image by Michele Lamberti via Flickr

Cicadas serve as an important food source for various predators. Below is a list of the main types of creatures that consume cicadas:

  • Birds: Various bird species consider cicadas a nutritious meal. Robins, bluejays, crows, sparrows, and some woodpeckers are just a few types of birds known to feed on cicadas.
  • Mammals: Mammals of varying species and sizes often feed on cicadas, including mice, shrews, bats, raccoons, and squirrels.
  • Insects: Praying mantises, spiders, and predatory beetles are just a few examples of insects that prey on cicadas.
  • Amphibians and Reptiles: Frogs, toads, lizards, and snakes are also known to consume cicadas.
  • Other Cicadas: Cannibalism among cicadas is not an uncommon occurrence. In some cases, cicadas of the same or different species may eat each other, especially when resources are limited.
  • Humans: While not a major predator of cicadas, in some cultures and regions, humans have used cicadas as a food source.