North America’s smallest cicada

Photo details: Canon 100mm macro lens on Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/18, MT-24EX flash 1/2 power w/ diffuser caps.

Photo details: Canon 100mm macro lens on Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/18, MT-24EX flash 1/2 power w/ diffuser caps.

While searching the hilltop prairies for Cylindera celeripes (swift tiger beetle) at McCormack Loess Mounds Natural Area in northwestern Missouri, I ran across a species of cicada that I’d not yet encountered in the state – Beameria venosa.  Cicadas as a rule are quite large insects, but with a body measuring only 16 mm (well under an inch) in length, B. venosa is one of – if not the – smallest species of this group in all of North America.  Had it not been for its distinctly cicada-esque call I might have thought it was some sort of fulgoroid planthopper (albeit a rather large one).  But a cicada it is, and a beautiful one at that despite its small size.

Beameria venosa is a prairie obligate species occurring from Nebraska and Colorado south to Texas and New Mexico.  To my knowledge, it has not been formally recorded from Missouri, although it is certainly already known from the state (it is listed in the 2009 issue of Missouri Species and Communities of Conservation Concern Checklist as “vulnerable” due to the restricted occurrence in Missouri of the prairie habitats in which it lives).  Froeschner (1952) listed 14 species of cicadas from Missouri but did not include this species even among those of possible occurrence in the state.  In my younger days, I managed not only to find all 14 of those species, but also a fifteenth species – the magnificent Tibicen superbus – in the southwestern corner of the state (formally recorded from the state some years later by Sanborn and Phillips 2004).  The occurrence of B. venosa in Missouri now brings to 16 the number of cicada species known from Missouri.

Despite its small size, the calling song of B. venosa is quite audible.  In fact, it was only due to its call that I noticed and began looking for this individual.  This brings up an interesting point regarding conspicuous insect songs and their role in enhancing predation risk.  Many predators are known to orient to the calls of cicadas (Soper et al. 1976), which in turn exhibit a variety of predator avoidance behaviors such as high perching, hiding, fleeing, and perhaps even mass emergence in the periodical cicadas.  Beameria venosa appears to avoid predators by producing its continuous train of sound pulses at a very high frequency.  Although audible to humans, the high frequency call apparently is not audible to birds and lizards – their chief predators (Sanborn et al. 2009).  In the open, treeless prairies where B. venosa lives, high frequency calling appears to provide the selective advantage for predator avoidance that fleeing, hiding, and high perching cannot.


Froeschner, R. C.  1952. A synopsis of the Cicadidae of Missouri. Journal of the New York Entomological Society 60:1–14.

Sanborn, A. F., J. E. Heath and M. S. Heath.  2009.  Long-range sound distribution and the calling song of the cicada Beameria venosa (Uhler) (Hemiptera: Cicadidae).  The Southwestern Naturalist 54(1):24-30.

Sanborn, A. F. and P. K. Phillips.  2004.  Neotype and allotype description of Tibicen superbus (Hemiptera: Cicadomorpha: Cicadidae) with description of its biogeography and calling song.  Annals of the Entomological Society of America 97(4):647-652.

Soper, R. S., G. E. Shewell and D. Tyrrell. 1976. Colcondamyia auditrix nov. sp. (Diptera; Sarcophagidae), a parasite which is attracted by the mating song of its host, Okanagana rimosa (Homoptera: Cicadidae).  The Canadian Entomologist 108:61-68.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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17 thoughts on “North America’s smallest cicada

  1. Great post Ted, what a wonderful picture of a rare insect. I bet Lee would love that image. You mentioned you were in Northwest MO, visiting the Loess Hills, was it Squaw Creek where you found this beauty? I visit Squaw Creek often as I only live 35 minutes from there, it is a beautiful place.

    • Just across the hiway from there at McCormack Loess Mounds. It probably can be found on any of the loess hilltop prairies up in Holt and Atchison Counties (and yes, I bet Lee would really like to know they’re up there and go get some!).

  2. I’ve been to McCormack a few times, mostly looking for butterflies. We are leaving Saturday for the Smoky Mountains, so when we get back home I will have to make a trip up there and see if I can find and photograph this beautiful little cicada. I will email Lee and tell him about your find, I ‘m sure he will be excited to hear about it.

      • Why does everyone keeps saying these things are small?! I just found a live one outside my house that was far larger then any I’ve seen in a picture! Everything really is bigger in Texas I guess.

        • Most cicada species are quite large – the largest species measure ~60 mm or so in length excluding the wings. This particular species – by cicada standards – truly is small, only 16 mm.

  3. Thanks for sharing this great insect. I have not seen one for a long, long time. The first one that I ever saw, I thought it was a mutation.

    Great story and thanks for sharing the information.
    Nice photo.


    • Hi Troy, thanks for the nice comments. I’ve seed this species before in Kansas, but I don’t remember it being so striking – probably because I didn’t attempt photograph it back then.

  4. Nice photo and species. About a year ago, I put a picture of another little prairie cicada on my blog and on BugGuide. Andy Hamilton stopped by BugGuide and IDed it as a species of Cicadetta. There are records of Beameria venosa in Illinois. They are from the sand hill prairies south and west of Peoria. I’ve never seen one, but would like to some day.

    • Thanks, Doug. We have Cicadetta calliope here also – in fact they were common in the same prairies where I saw Beameria but wasn’t able to get a photograph. I saw the other U.S. species – the beautiful lime-green Cicadetta kansa – out in Oklahoma and will post a photo of it soon.

  5. Hey, Ted…

    About the whole predator avoidance thing…for one of my classes, I need to do an insect collection.

    I’ve been thinking of collecting tachinid flies by recording grasshopper calls and playing them over loudspeakers, an approach that’s been used by some folks who studied them.

    I’ve been having trouble getting cicadas and was thinking of using a similar method to the one above. Kind of makes me wonder if a similar approach could be used to get cicadas or sample for uncommon species.

    • Hi Cheshire – I never thought of using recordings to collect insects, but I would imagine it would have to be quite targeted.

      Some people (not me) have used slingshots and air rifles with sand plugs to collect cicadas that sit high in trees. I prefer to just sneak up on ’em or find ’em dead. I probably don’t have a very good cicada collection as a result, but it’s just for fun. Besides, it’s hard for me to justify carrying around cicada-dedicated equipment when beetles are my real quarry 🙂

  6. Pingback: Tiny Prairie Cicadas « Exploring the Remnants


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