It’s said to be one of the loudest sounds in nature, and if you live in the Mid-Ohio Valley you cannot escape it this season. It’s the sound of the cicadas, those infrequent visitors that have everyone talking, some of us entranced, and many grimacing in disgust. It’s been 17 years since the last onslaught of winged warriors, and oh, what a difference 148,920 hours make!
The internet in general, and Facebook in particular, have helped make these so-ugly-they’re-cute creatures the stars of their own reality series. Unless you’ve been living under a rock (pun intended) you’ve been seeing posts of cicadas emerging, climbing, clinging and flying. Or maybe you’ve seen the less attractive images of their shells, dried husks cleaving to everything from leaves to window ledges. Or worse, you’ve had them drop in your hair or land on your shoulder as you pass near a tree.
To be honest, I was repulsed at my first sight of the lawn beneath one of our trees when I came across the portals from the underworld. Until then, we had been marveling at the abundance of birds in the yard, particularly the crows who seemed obsessed with pacing and pecking at the grass. A closer look at the soil revealed hundreds of holes, as if a giant had stomped around in cleats. However, I discovered these holes weren’t the result of something pushing downward, but rather something climbing upward.
From each hole, a cicada was emerging from its 17 year “hibernation”, which actually wasn’t a hibernation but rather life as a nymph. Living over a foot below the surface, the nymphs survive by sucking the sap from tree roots; hence the large numbers that emerge near the base of trees.
The triumph of escaping the earth into the light of day is short-lived for many cicadas. When the nymphs first arrive above the surface, they are easy prey for the birds and rodents. One expert described the emergence as “Christmas, Thanksgiving and Birthday all rolled into one feast” for the lucky little predators who suddenly have an all-you-can-eat buffet.
The cicadas who are not immediately eaten follow their primeval instincts and climb, climb, climb. Climbing up trees, brick buildings, tall grasses—the sooner they can get up to a safer height, the more likely they’ll be able to shed their husk in peace. Of course, predators can also find them at their elevated rest stops, and I’ve watched squirrels and birds alike picking the insects off like plucking berries.
Then it’s time to shed their husks, another rite that many will not survive. Some become stuck during the process, sadly entombed in their own shells. Others have malformed wings that will ensure their demise. And still there are the predators, an array of birds and lip-smacking rodents who must feel pretty lucky to be alive this year.
Don’t grieve too deeply for these seemingly tragic creatures. The Creator doesn’t make mistakes, and the cicadas have a part in the grand design. The sudden emergence of billions of insects means that their numbers are far too great to be depleted. After eating their fill, the rodents and birds will eventually be sated. There aren’t enough predators to eliminate all the cicadas so the survivors continue their journey to complete the life cycle.
Now comes the climax, the culmination of their noble efforts. Glistening wings whir and flutter as the cicadas take flight, launching from their perches in a somewhat awkward aerial dance. It’s time to find a mate and apparently the incessant screeching is music to the female’s “ears”. So the air is alive with the amorous clamor that we’ve all been exposed to this past week. Less like a wave, the sound is more like a river – a tumbling, chirping drone that makes me feel as if I’m submerged in the noise. It can be heard at all hours, from indoors and out, even inside my car as I drive the interstate. I’ve heard it likened to an alien mother ship hovering above the earth, assaulting our ears from all directions.
If a male successfully woos a female she will then lay her eggs in the tiny slits of tender bark. They don’t eat trees as many think, but usually target the weaker limbs, which results in a natural pruning. The adult cicadas have completed their mission, their short time above ground is spent. They fall away, depleted, leaving their young nestled in the bark. Before long the nymphs hatch and fall to the ground, where they will burrow down to their new home for the next 17 years.
And so the cycle is completed, the long dark time spent preparing and waiting, followed by the burst into light and the frenzied attempt to reproduce. So much happens above while the cicadas linger below—wars, inventions, upheavals and small milestones. We go on with our lives, oblivious to the creatures beneath our world until the next time their emergence makes the headlines.
This event is short lived and experienced just a few instances during our lifetime. In seventeen years I’ll likely be facing my own dwindling days, if I’m still on this earth. I may have grandchildren who will be fascinated with this natural phenomenon and I’ll share this little essay with them. I’m going to sleep with my windows open tonight, to enjoy the serenade while it lasts and assign it a special place in my memory.