• Stephen Birchard

Sing On, Cicadas!

Updated: Jun 17


Member of Brood X of 17 year cicadas

First the sound is distant, a faint buzzing coming from the trees. As we drive closer to the source of the strange noise, it is louder, more distinct. It undulates, the high-pitched buzzing first soft, then gradually building, then retreating. When we get closer, the cacophony is deafening. It is impossible to hear anything but the persistent raucous sound; the desperate racket of thousands who desire the company of the opposite sex so their species can continue.


These are the insects who have now completed their journey from egg to nymph to adult. This is not an unusual sequence of events in the insect world. Butterflies undergo an even more complicated process of egg to caterpillar to pupa to winged adult, also known as complete metamorphosis. What makes these noisy insects spectacular is the time frame. As immature creatures they bury themselves in the soil and patiently live there. Then, 17 years later, the adults emerge.


This is Brood X of cicadas. For 17 years they have waited underground, feeding on the roots of plants and trees. Even though there are millions of them, the cicada nymphs cause little to no damage to the fauna that supports them. This is the usual relationship between organisms in nature; balance is maintained by not overwhelming the system that supports the species. Humans could learn a valuable lesson from these insects; be patient and live in harmony with the environment.


After their extended period underground, the adult winged cicadas mate and then die after a few weeks. Their purpose completed, they are absorbed back into the ground as organic fertilizer and part of the biomass that makes up the soil. This short adult life span is common in the insect world. Many aquatic insects live only a few hours after hatching to adulthood. This abbreviated life span as an adult seems very odd until one understands that everything about the insect life cycle is geared toward survival of the species.


Currently in Central Indiana the 17-year cicadas are everywhere. To get close to them just find some trees and follow the unmistakable sound of the males. They fly between the trees, but some exit the forest and are seen hitting cars, windows of shops, and landing on anything vertical, including your body. I like it when this happens; I can get a closer look at them.



Our response to this insect invasion of our daily lives reflects our attitude about nature. Even though they don’t bite, harm the environment, or transmit disease, do we find them annoying, irritating, and ugly? Or do we tolerate, even enjoy their temporary presence and patiently wait until they gradually die off? I choose the latter. After all, it took them 17 years to get here; the least we can do is graciously share the forests with them for a few weeks.


To be honest, I am fascinated with them. I see beauty in their red eyes, large wings, and fat bodies. I even love their sound. The music they create cannot be compared to a Beethoven symphony, but it is beautiful none the less. It is the music of nature; the combined voices of a million members of a species who just want to make their presence known for a little while. I celebrate their visit as a wondrous part of nature. They are not cute and cuddly like a bunny rabbit, or majestic like a bald eagle, but they are remarkable, and I feel privileged to be close to them.


So sing on cicadas!


We’ll add our voices to your choir,

And dance to your song.


We’ll learn lessons from your journey,

As we marvel in your throng.


Your patience is a virtue,

That we appreciate.


Until we meet again,

2038.

References


Brood X Periodical Cicadas FAQ. https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/cicadas-brood-x.htm

Brood X: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brood_X


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