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Sing, Fly, Mate, Die — Here Come The Cicadas!

Tuesday, April 02, 2013 - 01:23 AM

If you live in Missouri, they've already gone.

But back East, cicadas are about to climb out of their little holes in the ground, wriggle out of their skins, like this ...

... so after 17 years of getting ready, they can now do the thing they hope, hope, hope to do — which is, if at all possible, make a baby.

The (Centerville, Ohio) one you see on this page was placed on a bedspread a few years ago by Nathan Mundhenk, who filmed it for two hours, then edited its molt — that's what it's doing, it's molting — down to 6.3 seconds. You don't see the half-hour nap this little guy takes to get the energy to finish. (You try unzipping yourself. It must be exhausting.) By the billions, trillions maybe, this is what cicadas will be doing very soon, first in Virginia, then in Maryland, then Delaware, New Jersey, New York, all the way up to northern Connecticut.

Cicadas have distinct populations, called "broods," and like popes, they carry Roman numerals like Brood II, X, XIV and XIX, which will emerge in 2013, 2021, 2025 and 2024, respectively.

I live with Brood II here in New York, so in a few weeks, I will meet thousands of them, face to face, foot to body (mine on theirs — squish), and I will hear uncountable numbers more, because the males gather to sing in giant choruses, Mormon Tabernacle-sized, and their mating songs are, famously, LOUD.

So loud, that when the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock back in the 1630s, their leader, Gov. William Bradford, was astonished:

... all the month of May, there was such a quantity of a great sort of flyes like for bignesss to wasps or bumblebees, which came out of holes in the ground and replenished all the woods, and ate green things, and made such a constant yelling noise as made all the woods ring of them, and ready to deaf the hearers ...

A century later, I learned from David Rothenberg's about-to-be published book Bug Music, American naturalists were still reeling from the noise; writing to the Royal Society in London in 1733, Paul Dudley described what it was like to ride along a cicada-infested American country road (clearly it didn't improve his spelling):

... They are in great numbers in our woods, the noise is loud to the degree that our farmers have not been able to hear their cowbells tho in sight. I have myself been trvelin thro the midst of thousands of them, and the noise was such that there was no conversing for some miles together, & it carried even some terror in it. ...

It's not just the volume, it's the tone. Male cicadas chorusing sound a touch menacing, even nasty. A couple of years ago, a bunch of Columbia, Mo., alternative musicians produced a compilation album called Cicada Summer, after the emergence of Brood XIX in their area. Their song titles, "Why Do You Keep Me Up at Night?" and "Piercing Siren of Death" suggest how the sound affected them; their "Death" song, especially, is a joyous a cappella riff with an opening chorus that goes, "BuzzNasty, BuzzNasty, BuzzNasty." Here it is, all 56 seconds of it:

This has been a continuous theme: These bugs, often called "locusts" (which they're not), feel like dark messengers from a dark place. In Nashville, back in 2011, Joel Anderson of the Anderson Design Group played with this theme when he created this poster (still available, he tactfully told me), called "I survived the Cicada Attack!"

Joel Anderson/Copyright 2013 Anderson Design Group

The cicada isn't as bad as its reputation. David Rothenberg, in his book, quotes a 1936 article from The New York Times that reminded readers "that cicadas are not locusts, they do not eat crops, they do not sting babies to death, and they will not harm your fruit flies excessively."

The Times back then urged its readers "to respect the cicada, to think of all the dangers it must face in its short, few weeks of life aboveground: being chased by birds, eaten by dogs, cats, and foxes ... " and, these days, by Internet chefs.

Joel Anderson/Copyright 2013 Anderson Design Group

In 2011, the Missouri Department of Conservation (!? Did someone forget their mission?) happily disseminated four cicada-based recipes for Cicada Pizza, Cicada-Portobello Quiche, "El chirper" Tacos, and Emergence Cookies. You could get yourself Cicada Ice Cream at Sparky's in Columbia (till the Missouri state government decided that wasn't a good idea), or do a pasta-cicada dish with Tennessee's Anderson Design Group on YouTube.

And then, just when you are getting used to hearing them, eating them, making fun of them, seeing them in your trees, your windshield, your shoes — suddenly they go poof! And disappear. Their going is as odd, as evocative, as their coming.

In Eastern Virginia, back in 1920, entomologist H.A. Allard described what it was like when they left:

I felt a positive sadness when I realized that the great visitation was over, and there was silence in the world again, and all were dead that had so recently lived and filled the world with noise and movement. It was almost a painful silence, and I could not but feel that I had lived to witness one of the great events of existence, comparable to the occurrence of a notable eclipse or the invasion of a great comet.

The most poignant goodbye was written more than a thousand years ago, in 1056, by the Chinese poet Ouyang Hsiu, who loved hearing them ...

Here was a thing that cried upon a treetop
sucking the shrill wind
To wail it back in a long whistling note ...

And who seemed to miss them when they vanished ...

Again your voice, cicada ...
... as suddenly as it began
suddenly ceases.

And now, countless generations later, on a different continent with a different brood, here on the Atlantic Coast, it's our turn.


David Rothenberg's new book, Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise goes on sale in a couple of weeks.

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Comments [3]

Chris Simon from Storrs, CT

Hi Robert, I loved your story! As always you managed to weave humor, warmth, humor, pathos, and humor into a very entertaining piece! I am really happy that Radiolab is doing so much with Magicicada! Your show is great! Best, Chris PS The cicada emerging in your photo is not a 17-year cicada. It is a dog-day cicada; they come out in July, August, and September and appear every year because they are not synchronized. The periodicals come out in the spring and always have red eyes and orange wing veins.

Apr. 08 2013 07:37 PM
Daniel from Erie, PA

"The (Centerville, Ohio) one you see on this page was placed on a bedspread a few years ago by Nathan Mundhenk, who filmed it for two hours, then edited its molt — that's what it's doing, it's molting — down to 6.3 seconds."

Bedspread? Looks like a paper towel to me.

Apr. 04 2013 12:50 PM
fancycwabs from Nashville, TN

When the cicada brood was at its peak in Nashville two years ago, I downloaded a decibel meter app and went for a bike ride through the woods. I've got an image of it hitting 97 dB, but I seem to recall it breaking 100 dB at some point.

Apr. 04 2013 12:26 PM

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