Giant Cicada, Megapomponia merula, the largest cicada in Borneo

Cicada, the Noisiest Insect in Borneo

There are around 3,000 species of cicadas worldwide, with approximately 150 species found in Malaysia alone. Sabah, in particular, has over 80 described cicada species. These fascinating creatures come in various sizes, spanning from 15 mm to 70 mm (0.6 to 2.76 in inches) in length. In the lush forests of Sabah, their melodious chorus often fills the air.

Left: Mangrove Cicada, Purana. Right: Forest Cicada, Platylomia spinosa
Left: Mangrove Cicada, Purana. Right: Forest Cicada, Platylomia spinosa. Cicadas of Southeast Asia have a life cycle of one to three years.

Did you know that only male cicadas can sing? Cicada can produce a sound exceeding 100 decibels, which is technically loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss if it sings right outside your ear. The giant cicada, Megapomponia merula, also known as the 6’o Clock Cicada, is the loudest cicada in Borneo (Click Here to hear its orchestra). In Peninsular Malaysia, its slightly larger cousin, Megapomponia imperatoria, is dubbed the 7 o’clock Cicada, as it gets darker later in this part of the country.

Specimens of Megapomponia merula,  the largest cicada in Borneo
Megapomponia merula, also known as the 6’o Clock Cicada, is the largest cicada in Borneo

The swarming season for cicadas in Malaysia is typically from March to May. Cicadas spend their entire life cycle underground, emerging only in adulthood to breed. After laying their eggs in the soil, cicadas’ nymphs hatch and spend several years underground, burrowing as deep as 1 to 2.5 meters, where they feed on tree sap.

Left: A cicada mud tower on the forest floor. Right: An exuvium or nymphal skin of a cicada on a tree trunk
Left: A cicada mud tower on the forest floor. Cicada nymphs construct mud towers above ground in order to aerate their burrows. In the final nymphal instar, they construct an exit tunnel to the surface and emerge. Right: An exuvium or nymphal skin of a cicada on a tree trunk

When they reach their final nymphal instar, they dig an exit tunnel to the surface and emerge. Once above ground, they ascend a nearby plant, shed their skin, and emerge as adults. In forested areas, you’ll often find many of these abandoned skins clinging to tree bark. Interestingly, these dry skins are utilized in certain Chinese medicines for their cooling effect.

Cicada nymphal skins are used in traditional Chinese folk medicine to remove heatiness
Cicada nymphal skins are used in traditional Chinese folk medicine to remove heatiness

Local Chinese tradition holds a belief that when a person passes away, their spirit rides on a cicada (or moth or other insects) to visit the family on the seventh day to bid farewell before departing to the afterlife. As a result, it is taboo to harm any insect during this period.

A cicada on the tree bark of Borneo rainforest
In Malay, cicada are known as ‘riang-riang’ while in Dusun, they are called ‘tengir’ or ‘taviu’. The empress cicada, scientifically known as Megapomponia imperatoria, is the world’s largest cicada found in Malaysia. It can grow up to 8 cm long with a wingspan of 20 cm

Throughout history, the cicada has symbolized resurrection, immortality, spiritual realization, and ecstasy. In ancient Greek and Roman cultures, they were considered sacred to Apollo and associated with the ecstatic singing of the Dionysian Bacchae and Maenads.

Tour package to Semporna
Cicadas shed their skins and emerge as adults
Cicadas shed their skins on a nearby plant for the last time and emerge as adults. The exuviae or nymphal skins are normally left clinging to the bark of the tree.

Some Sabah natives, particularly those from the interior, consume cicadas, especially the green varieties. These cicadas are typically roasted over a fire and have their hard exoskeleton removed before consumption. Alternatively, they may be stir-fried until they turn yellow. Some people even dig out the cicada nymph, which is said to have about 20 of them under the chimney. Interestingly, some refer to cicadas as the ‘Shrimps of the Land,’ suggesting they might be tasty.

The Green Cicada, Dundubia vaginata
The Green Cicada, Dundubia vaginata. It’s an edible species. While most species are considered edible, there is an exception for the black and brown cicadas with yellow stripes.

According to Dr. Azman Sulaiman, a researcher at the UKM Centre for Insect Systematics Entomology, cicadas are considered relatively clean compared to other insects, although some may carry parasites. In 2012, scientists discovered that cicada wings possess antimicrobial properties due to microstructures called nanopillars, which effectively shred various harmful bacteria.

Photos taken in Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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