They Can’t Get Us All

They’re coming. Although “when” isn’t precise, apparently “whether” isn’t in question. After almost a full human-generation underground, there will be billions of them out-and-about sometime between now and the end of May. Yes, billions of them.

Billions of whom? Cicadas, that’s whom.

a large homopterous insect with long transparent wings,
occurring chiefly in warm countries.
(Ed’s note: Just to be clear,
the whole insect occurs there, not just the wings.)
The male cicada makes a loud shrill droning noise
(Ed’s note: I have known males like this.)
by vibrating two membranes on its abdomen.
(Ed’s note: Just to be clear, not exactly like this.)
– Oxford Languages

Ci•ca•da: It’s a word that I never knew how to pronounce. After all, we had none in Alberta. Not once did I come running into the house to alert my parents:

Mom, Dad, there are bugs in the backyard.
*Everywhere* in the backyard.
I think they’re chick-a-duz.
Oh, never mind.
There are large homopterous insects out there.

Ci•ca•da: It’s a word that I still mispronounce. I got over misplacing the em•fas•is, but now I say si•kei•duh whereas both Brits and Americans say a softer suh•kaa/kei•duh, which trans-Atlantic differences could be a song.

You say suh•kei•duh,
And I say suh•kaa•duh:
Let’s call the whole thing off.

And a scene in a musical.

Ci•ca•da: It’s a word linked inextricably in my imagination with the American South. With memories of the 1965/66 TV show The Long Hot Summer with Roy Thinnes, which and whom I watched as a 13-year-old. Man, that TV-season-long summer had nothing on Roy.

It turns out it’s not just my sense of English pronunciation rules that’s dodgy, but also my sense of place. Ci•ca•das live — Can you call spending 17 years underground as a worm-like being, living? — OK, they hang out as far north as New York State and as far west as Kansas, in addition to crawling around under true southern states like Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. Whatever are they doing down there? (Underground, I mean. Just to be clear. There’s lots to do in all of those States.)

“They’re in the dark, they’re feeding on roots, just living their best lives until the time is right,” said Matt Kasson, an associate professor at West Virginia University who studies cicadas and the fungi that zombify them. – NBC News

Living their best lives, eh? This is it? That seems downright mis-erable, if not an actual mis-carriage of justice. On top of that they’re not just a mis-pronounced and mis-placed species, they’re also a mis-understood species. Mis-underappreciated we might almost say.

The cicadas won’t hurt you. They don’t sting and they’re not venomous.
Cicadas get a bad rap because they remind people of the biblical plagues
of locusts (a different insect)
that would eat entire crop fields.
(Ed’s note: Locusts are obviously herbivorous, not homopterous, insects.)
But the cicadas set to emerge this spring in the United States
are harmless to humans and won’t wipe out fields or gardens.

I might have travelled south (of here I mean, not, like, South) to see and hear and photograph this year’s emergence, which is expected to be a literally and metaphorically groundbreaking effort by a cohort named Brood X, but the Canada/USA border (National Treasure though it is) remains closed to non-essential travel. I don’t think I can persuade a border guard that this 1-in-17-year chance to see/hear/photograph many, many, many ci•ca•das is essential travel. I might not even be able to persuade my designated long-haul driver.

Side view of dragonfly resting on a leaf.

A dragonfly: neither homopterous nor herbivorous but the closest I’ve got.

My usual lack of credibility with border guards even when I’m telling the truth would be exacerbated in this case because to make the case I would have to lie. This isn’t actually the only year for hordes of ci•ca•das: There are 12 other broods that emerge on different cycles. So, this year I’ll be watching for online coverage of the emergence, and next year I’ll be watching for advance reports on any of those other broods that are scheduled to pop up.

If you’re wondering why they bother with cycles — It can’t be that much fun, sucking on tree roots in the dark. How come they don’t get bored at different times and just head up to see the bright lights whenever the fancy strikes them? — well, that’s how science advances, by asking questions almost like that. And there’s not just an answer, there’s a darned good reason, too.

The cicadas’ only defense against predators
is to arise together in an enormous swarm,
overwhelming the predators’ ability to eat them all.

This strategy is called predator satiation, and as a survival strategy it’s just as dodgy as it sounds. (You can thank me later for linking to a site with cute graphics instead of one with cute-free equations and sentences like this: Similarly, where does the predator growth, [equation here], cease for the same phase-plane? I am always thinking of your happiness.) Anyway, back to the strategy, but in plain language.

Come on!
If we go together,
they can’t get us all!

Yup, the world is a tough place. And we didn’t even get into the zombifying fungi.

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9 Responses to They Can’t Get Us All

  1. Eric J Hrycyk says:

    So how do they tell time…..even Timex watches quit before the 17 year cycle, or for other cohorts the 13 year cycle.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Eric – A good question. This article says the answer is that they have an internal molecular clock that counts environmental cues for the changing of the seasons. As perceived underground . . .

  2. Tom Watson says:

    It’s not cicadas that I fear coming to get me…it’s those miserable, mean black flies and mosquitos!

  3. I am not sure if I ever have seen a cicada. I remember being taught how to pronounce its name before I was of school age. The sounds they make have always fascinated me, which is why my father was prompted to explain those sounds’ source as they increased in pitch during summer heat. Knowing they are harmless to humans likely reduced any need I might have felt to learn more about the wee critters. I certainly never thought of them as “locusts.” I am still not sure I ought to!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – Indeed we should not think of cicadas as locusts, which are grasshoppers en masse as I understand it. I don’t know if I’ve ever even heard a cicada. Maybe next year.

  4. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – do you know anybody down south who can set up a webcam for you? Before the cicadas emerge of course.

  5. Pingback: The Song the Cicadas Sing | Traditional Iconoclast

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