The Misunderstood Cicada
Fearsome-looking, the singing cicada is really just a big love bug
By Bill McConnell
This is a face only a mother could love.
Or is it?
Bulging red eyes, wide apart atop an alien-looking head. Six hairy legs, long lace-like wings and a pudgy, waspish body.
Meet the cicada, nature’s predominant singing insect.
This summer, the state is due for a bumper crop of these noisy, tree dwellers, says Jason Cryan, an entomologist from the the Natural History Museum of Utah.
“In some areas, we could see 10 times more cicadas than normal,” says Cryan. “I think it will be fascinating.”
What’s fascinating to an entomologist is cicadapocalypse. But before hightailing it out of here, consider this: The brood of cicadas emerging from the ground right now has been patiently waiting for . . . 17 years.
Unlike annual garden-variety cicadas, these are a genus scientists call Magicicada. They live in the eastern half of the United States, and, depending on your point of view, look either like something out of a horror movie or an adorable puppy.
“I think they’re really cute,” says Chris Simon, a professor at the University of Connecticut who has been studying cicadas since 1974. “Their big red eyes . . . the pretty orange wing veins . . . the way their wings catch little slices of light . . . they’ve just got a lot of character.”
Any way you slice it, 17 years is a long time. Almost no other insect lives that long. So what are cicadas doing all that time in their subterranean homes?
Not as much as you might think. They mastered social distancing long before the rest of us. No card games or Friday afternoon happy hours. There the time is spent trying to grow as fat as possible by sipping fluid (xylem) from tree roots.
When their genetic alarm clock rings and ground temps hit 64 degrees, cicadas claw their way 8 inches or so out of the ground, climb the nearest tree to pop out of their brownish exoskeleton.
It’s like The Wizard of Oz when it goes from sepia tone to color.
“Their wings glisten like glass at first,” Cryan observes. “It’s still amazing every time I see it.”
Fortunately, or unfortunately, people in the Triad are going to see a lot of nature’s little miracle this year. “The treetops may be filled with cicadas,” Simon notes, “but they are harmless to humans and animals.”
Truth is, cicadas, while fearsome-looking, don’t bite, sting, run red lights or get in the express line with 13 items. Unlike locusts or katydids, cicadas don’t devour crops or cause plagues. (We’ve already got one of those, thank you.).
About the worst thing cicadas do is — pee on us. In some places like Singapore, eco-tourists pay for this unique experience called “cicada rain.”
Cicadas singing together can be noisy. Depending on their size and species, they can sound like birds, a flying saucer from a 1950s science fiction movie or someone throwing water into very hot grease.
A large group of cicadas can make as much noise as a car radio turned up full volume.
These lovable habits aside, cicadas are misunderstood. People tend to judge them solely by their appearance. Beauty in the eye of an entomologist or 13-year-old makes moms shriek.
What cicadas really like is sitting in trees during the summer and singing the day away to impress bug-eyed females — you may be able to hear them now.
Oh, and procreating.
In fact, that’s the main reason they’re here, confides Cryan.
“Basically, they’re sex machines,” he offers, in a hushed tone.
Eat, sing and do the wild thing. Lay a few hundred eggs. Then die.
While lovable, cicadas aren’t the sharpest crayons in the box. Start your lawnmower or anything with an electric buzz and you may trigger a cicada lovefest.
If a confused cicada mistakes you for its mate, don’t panic. Look it squarely in its compound eyes and give the critter a gentle flick. “Not even in your wildest dreams,” you mutter.
Chances are, it’ll fly off, dejected, no doubt looking for some motherly love. OH
Bill McConnell is a freelance writer who still believes in the power of science. You can bug him at firstname.lastname@example.org.