The Cicada

Not just a tasty treat.

It’s an exciting time in the mid-Atlantic region right now, with other areas of excitement extending past the Appalachian mountains, and down into the Ohio River valley somewhat. This is an excitement that has been building for almost two decades now, and at last it is starting to explode forth in a frenzy of massively loud noise and random copulation.

I speak, of course, of the return of the cicadas.

For those of you who may have never heard of these little creatures, or who perhaps have a different species of them (I’m looking at you, Japan), let me fill you in. Cicadas are insects with a pretty amazing method of going about their lives. As opposed to mosquitoes or wasps or crickets, which you can find pretty much anytime you really want to go looking for them, cicadas can only be found in very specific places and at very specific times. Those specific times, to be exact, are every 13 or 17 years, depending on the brood. Here in Maryland, we are home to Brood X, who are making their grand re-emergence for the first time since 1987.

The cicadas themselves are impressive little buggers, and I refer to them as “little buggers” completely figuratively, because they are actually quite large buggers. The average cicada is somewhere in the realm of two to three inches long. They have black bodies with fiery red eyes and large, orange-veined wings. They also have big mutant-crab-esque orange legs. To be honest, they are pretty imposing to look at. Their visage, however, belies the fact that they are incredibly gentle, harmless creatures. You can pet them, you can pick them up, and you could probably even kiss one if you really wanted to.

Of course, what I call gentle, others may refer to as “stupid.” Cicadas have absolutely no natural defenses. This, coupled with the fact that almost everything else in the world likes to eat them, could seem indicative of a larger problem. Cicadas are slow on the ground, helpless when they are in their early post-skin-shedding phase, and are notoriously bad fliers. This is mostly because, after spending 17 years underground, their vision is pretty bad, as you might imagine. If you see one barreling through the air towards you, you better be the one to get out of the way, because it sure as hell isn’t going to try and miss you.

The one thing cicadas really have going for them is sheer numbers. Many scientists say that this is the cicadas’ main survival strategy; by emerging all at once in numbers reaching into the billions, there are enough of them that can get eaten, crushed, or otherwise annihilated, and still have plenty left to carry on the mating cycle. You may recall this strategy from WWI: Throw enough people at something, and someone is bound to get through in the end.

Oh, and on the subject of mating: They like to make a real production of it. The most noticeable feature of the cicada is the incredibly loud mating call produced by the male. The sound is audible over great distances, and with thousands upon thousands of them all “singing” at once, it makes for a noisy couple of weeks. Think of it as the equivalent of a room full of guys all shouting “Heeeeeyyyyyyy!” at every woman who walks by. Maybe, just maybe, if they say it just right, they’ll score themselves a lovely lady. Of course, in this metaphor, they’d curl up and die immediately after the deed was done, but some guys still might take that option.

After all of the singing and mating and bad flying, the eggs are laid, the nymphs are hatched, and they fall to the ground, burrowing deep beneath to wait out the next 17 years. Personally, I think that is the most amazing thing about these creatures. To them, the world is nothing but a snapshot they get to see once every cycle. American history to them is all in 17-year chunks. A mother cicada may drop her eggs in the middle of a forest, and when those kids come out, that forest may be a town, and when the next group comes out, that town may be a Wal-Mart and a parking lot.

And the thing of it is, the cicadas really don’t have any time to adapt. They’ve got one thing to do, and only a few short weeks to do it. They couldn’t care less what’s going on in the world, just as long as they can find a tree and some open dirt. I guess you could think of them as the most patient creatures in the world; they don’t exactly know what they’ll find when the finally poke their heads above the ground, but they know that when the time finally comes, they’ll find out one way or the other.

Maybe I’m just a sucker, but I think you have to be impressed by them. Seventeen years is a long time to live underground. Seventeen years is an incredibly long time for an insect to live. This brood is older than a lot of the people they will be flying into.

On that subject, it makes me very sad and very angry to see the fate of some of these cicadas. I left home the other day and saw the first fully-grown one I’d seen so far, slowly crawling across the front stoop of my apartment building, trying to get his bearings. When I came home later that day, I saw him again, but something had gone terribly wrong.

His wings had been torn from his body, and he just sat there, struggling to fly away. 17 years he had waited, and it all ended in a moment of random abuse. I knew exactly who had done it, of course: The children. The children that run around and hurt things because they don’t know any better. Children whose parents put them outside with no supervision because they don’t want to deal with them. But that, I suppose, is a different discussion, so I digress …

My point is this: Be nice to cicadas, if you see them. They’ve been waiting a long time, and we have no right to interfere with them. How would you like it if you’d been waiting 17 years to score, and when the time finally came, someone walked up and cut your arms off?

I have a feeling you’d be a little ticked.

If you see a kid torturing one, just smack him on the back of the head and tell him to go inside and play video games. Cicadas are one of the mysteries of the world, and you don’t get many chances to see them during a lifetime. Enjoy it while it lasts.

And remember, if we really piss them off, they totally outnumber us. Bad fliers or not, the odds wouldn’t be in our favor …

Article © 2004 by Joel Haddock