How Long Do Cicadas Live Above Ground?

By Jane Meggitt

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The many cicada species all have one thing in common. Their lifespan above ground is much shorter than their underground lives. Depending on the species, a cicada might emerge as often as annually or as infrequently as every 17 years, but they expire approximately five to six weeks later. Those several weeks are short but sweet for this remarkable insect.

Cicada Habitat

If you live among large numbers of deciduous trees, it's likely that cicadas are developing beneath the soil. Native to North America, cicadas have adapted well to leafy suburban living. While the majority of cicada species live among deciduous trees, some members of the family are found among pine trees or near swamps or the seaside. Cicadas dwelling beneath woodlands tend to have longer cycles than other species, but that doesn't affect the time spent above ground.

Cicada Nymph Stage

Female cicadas lay their eggs among small branches and tree twigs. Approximately six weeks later, these eggs hatch. The cicada nymphs fall onto the soil, burrowing underneath the ground. They feed on sap from the roots of trees, woody plants, grasses and herbal plants. Once underground, the nymphs of all species pass through four molts. The fifth and final molt occurs above ground, when they have emerged for their particular cycle.

Cicada Emergence

Cicadas emerge in huge groups, numbering millions of insects. When the right periodical cycle occurs, cicadas begin emerging when the ground hits a certain nighttime temperature, as they appear after dark. Each cicada sheds that final skin on a tree, with the exoskeleton hardening within a few hours. "Stragglers" are those cicadas emerging in an off-year, usually involving relatively few insects. Although stragglers can appear in any year, they most often occur the year prior to a larger emergence or the succeeding season.

Breeding Behavior

The song that fills the air a few days after cicadas emerge is that of males producing their mating calls. The life of the emerged male cicada consists primarily of singing, flying and mating. Short as the life of the aboveground cicada might be, it's full of sex. Males and females mate continuously, with many partners. The female's ovipositor -- a sharp egg-laying tube off her back end -- allows her to create slits in branches in which she then deposits her roughly 500 eggs. She then falls off the branch and dies. Males might live a few days longer.

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Author

Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.