If you have ever been in Beijing in the months of July, August and September, it is impossible to miss the deafening sound of the local cicadas. Their repetitive, buzzy, whining can be heard from almost every green space in the capital. However, although their ‘songs’ are hard to miss, their camouflage makes them difficult to spot and for many people the closest they will come to seeing one is to find the discarded casing of a newly emerged cicada or, later in the season, maybe one recently deceased on the pavement.
In Beijing we have at least four species of cicada, three of which are common even inside the second ring road. Each has a distinctive look and a distinctive ‘song’.
Eastern Horse Cicada (Cryptotympana atrata, 黑蚱蝉 Hēi zhà chán)
Eastern Horse Cicada (Cryptotympana atrata, 黑蚱蝉 Hēi zhà chán), Shunyi District, July 2022. This photo by Terry Townshend.
Listen to the call of the Eastern Horse Cicada. A long, continuous and monotonous rasp.
Robust Cicada (Hyalessa maculaticollis 斑透翅蝉 Bān tòu chì chán)
Robust Cicada (Hyalessa maculaticollis 斑透翅蝉 Bān tòu chì chán) from Huairou District, July 2022. Photo by Terry Townshend.
Listen to the call of the Robust Cicada. A series of whiny calls that tail off after a few bursts. It almost sounds as if it is just winding itself up and then can’t be bothered..
Autumn Cicada (Meimuna mongolica 蒙古寒蝉 Ménggǔ hánchán)
Autumn Cicada (Meimuna mongolica 蒙古寒蝉 Ménggǔ hánchán). Photo by 混沌牛.
Listen to the call of the Autumn Cicada – a series of relatively short, repetitive, two-note calls.
If you are lucky, you may also encounter Kosemia admirabilis (东北指蝉 Dōngběi zhǐ chán) in Beijing. An image and sound recording will appear here when available.
Cicadas have prominent eyes set wide apart, short antennae, and membranous front wings. They have an exceptionally loud song, produced by the rapid buckling and unbuckling of drum-like tymbals. They typically live in trees, feeding on watery sap, and lay their eggs in the bark. The vast majority of species are active during the day as adults, with some calling more frequently at dawn or dusk.
The so-called annual cicadas are species that emerge every year. Though these cicadas’ life cycles can vary from one to nine or more years as underground nymphs, their emergence above ground as adults is not synchronised, so some members of each species appear every year.¹
One exclusively North American genus, Magicicada (the periodical cicadas), which spend most of their lives as underground nymphs, emerge in predictable intervals of 13 or 17 years, depending on the species and the location. The unusual duration and synchronisation of their emergence may reduce the number of cicadas lost to predation, both by making them a less reliably available prey (so that any predator that evolved to depend on cicadas for sustenance might starve waiting for their emergence), and by emerging in such huge numbers that they will satiate any remaining predators before losing enough of their number to threaten their survival as a species.²
Interesting fact: males disable their own tympana while calling, thereby preventing damage to their hearing;³ a necessity partly because some cicadas produce sounds up to 120 dB, which is among the loudest of all insect-produced sounds. The song is loud enough to cause permanent damage to human hearing should the cicada be at “close range”.
The renowned English diplomat and naturalist, Robert Swinhoe, wrote the following about cicadas during his explorations around Beijing.
ZOOLOGICAL NOTES OF A JOURNEY FROM CANTON TO PEKING AND KALGAN PZS, 1870; pp427-451).
436 MR. R. SWINHOE ON CHINESE ZOOLOGY. [June 9, 1870]
“On the 9th of August I went out again to the neighbourhood of the Black-Dragon temple, and the following day started with some friends for the Menofunyshan, a temple built like a fortress on a hill 1500 feet high. The road lay across the valley and over the range (1300 feet) on which the Tacheo-sze temple stands, along a plateau and through an orchard-planted ravine. On the grassy parts of the hills Emberiza cioides (Brandt), occurred frequently, singing sweetly a Robin-like song ; but about the orchards and plantations of oak there were few birds. The ear was everywhere deafened by the noisy Cicadas. In the ravine about the foot of the Meaofung hill the chief species was a brown Cicada about 1 inch long, known to Europeans in Peking as “Keenlung’s Nightingale.” Its cry may be syllabled “Meao-meao-meao-may.” It is said by the Chinese to have been introduced from Jehol into this neighbourhood by the Emperor Keenlung*, who took great pleasure in its note. The noise it makes is perfectly bewildering, and one cannot but feel pity for the Emperor’s unaccountable taste.”
*Keenlung refers to Emperor Qianlong, one of the Manchu Emperors of China from 1711-1799.
Thank you to Phil Hall for highlighting this text. The description of the cry “Meao-meao-meao-may” fits very well the call of the Robust Cicada (Hyalessa maculaticollis 斑透翅蝉 Bān tòu chì chán).
- Fitzgerald, Kevin (22 March 2016). “How Do Cicadas Know When to Emerge from the Ground?”. Entomology Today.
- Simon, Chris; Cooley, John R. (2022). “Advances in the Evolution and Ecology of Thirteen- and Seventeen-year periodical cicadas”. Annual Review of Entomology. 67: 457–482. doi:10.1146/annurev-ento-072121-061108. ISSN 0066-4170. PMID 34623904. S2CID 238529885.
- “Cicada noise”. 50/50. NZ. 2 June 2002. Archived from the original on 4 October 2006.
Title image: a typical pose of a cicada in Beijing, Shunyi District, July 2022 (Terry Townshend)