The Lit Maven

Singing Along with Cicadas

Posted on: August 22, 2012

I am not one to sing the praises of insects, although I have been known to gently pick up spiders found in my house and toss them out the backdoor unharmed. I like ladybugs (especially when they protect my rose bushes from aphids) and think that lightning bugs (fireflies to some) are magical. Every year, I make it a point to catch at least one lightning bug and hold it in my hand for just a moment before allowing it to creep up my fingers and, after watching it perch for a second or two, wishing it well as it flies off with tail alight. It’s one of those summer joys that adulthood diminishes. Another summer joy is the cicada. As if humans cannot feel the intense heat of a typical July day in Philadelphia, we are reminded by the buzzing of these big insects. There are over 2500 species of cicada in the world, but, since I’ve lived in Pennsylvania all my life, I know of only one – dark with transparent wings and a long-winded buzzer that adds a pleasant sound to an otherwise silent summer day. These are considered periodical cicadas since they make sudden appearances. They have the distinction of being the longest-lived insect in North America, discovered over 300 years ago. In some regions, they are called locusts, but they are unrelated to those biblical pests; instead they are related to leafhoppers and froghoppers or spittlebugs. Like these cousins, cicadas have crazy looking pointy things (proboscis) under their heads that they insert into tree bark or leaves to sample the sap. They are non-threatening to humans, but can mistake a human arm or leg as a tree limb and – watch out! – you can get inadvertently punctured. No harm done and no viciousness meant, but it may be a good idea to shake off your visitor quickly. Cicadas also have a tendency to leave their exoskeletons on trees after molting. In case you’ve never seen this, here is a time-lapse video for your enjoyment. Probably the most noticeable characteristic of a cicada, though, is its song. Let’s take a deeper listen. They’re not singing for us humans, although anyone who has ever heard a cicada song, knows it. Maybe that’s not completely true, though. One of my friends tells the story of the first summer she lived in Pennsylvania. She was born and bred in Massachusetts and never heard a cicada song. The first hot day of her Pennsylvania life, she heard the buzzing. Startled and thinking it was a dangerous situation having something to do with the electrical wires that ran along her backyard, she called the electric company. They arrived prepared to deal with the problem only to identify a cicada as the culprit. The truth is: these little bugs are singing to mate. As Professor Mike Raupp of the University of Maryland says, “It’s all about love for these guys.” Both males and females have tympals, actual parts of their anatomy (abdominals and ribs) that make a sound. It’s a true living musical instrument unlike crickets who rub their wings together (albeit another summer sound I love). Tympals are like a cat’s purring – a sound that resonates deep within the animal and is as beautifully musical as anything man-made. So, before these familiar creatures fade away with the tropical temperatures, enjoy them and know that, even though they are not singing for you, they are filling the still summer air with their own personal music!

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