Magic Cicada

Posted by on Jun 23, 2013 in insects, summer, Unmowed Blog, wildlife | 3 comments

Driving south on the Thruway, and I slowly become aware there’s a strange buzzing noise going on. Oh, god, no—must be something with the engine. It’s a penetrating, grating sound, clearly mechanical. I slow down—it gets louder. I roll down the window—it rises to an eerie shriek. I stop at the first rest area, and turn the car off. The noise keeps going. My ears actually hurt with the most annoying sound ever devised by nature: the love song of ten million cicadas.

The fence at the edge of the rest area is draped with bittersweet and poison ivy vines, and the metal chain links are practically vibrating with the noise. I go closer, camera poised, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive insects. Ah, there’s one! And another and another and another and three zillion more.

Not being graced with patience and skill like my amazing photographer friends, I appreciate a creature who will pose so obligingly.cicada 036 They’re the creepiest-looking things, but quite stunning up close. Wings of glittering, transparent silver and mad ruby eyes.

Stepping into my Ms. Environmental Educator role, I explained helpfully to half-a-dozen horrified passersby (shouting over the racket) that the cicadas were absolutely harmless—no, they don’t bite, no, they don’t sting—and then of course a cicada landed on my shoulder and I screamed like a girl and dropped the camera. Well, they’re pretty darn big, after all.

The cicadas went on whanging away as I contemplated their bizarre lifestyle. These are periodical cicadas, with a seventeen-year larval stage. Seventeen years underground. Seventeen years they burrow patiently through the soil, sucking juice from tree roots. Seventeen years of cold damp earth. Then one miraculous spring they start climbing, all together, somehow knowing it’s time. They rise like a spring tide under the moon and emerge from the ground.

Never was a species given a more appropriate Latin name. Magicicada septendecim. It does seem magical, all those miniature monsters silently rising from the ground, like when Jason sowed the dragon’s teeth and the skeleton warriors appeared. But the cicadas don’t stay silent long. The males sing their demented chorus to attract the ladies, for a few brief weeks, an orgy of song and sex. And then it’s the end. Then they all die, all the mad singers. But the eggs left behind hatch and then another brood goes underground for seventeen years.cicada 044

Where will you be in seventeen years? Where will I? It will be a long time before we hear that song again.





  1. Whanging away!? They look like demons to me with those bulging, red eyes. Every 17 years is enough for me. How ’bout this? Brigadoon could come back every 17 years and the cicadas could come back in 100!

  2. How can you not love an insect that only shows up every 17 years?!

    • They make up for lost time when they appear, though!

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