The Blameless Homogeneousness of the Cicada

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Of the over 2500 species of cicada (superfamily Cicadoidea), at least one has been known to fly blindly and at full speed into a person’s forehead, causing that person to blink uncontrollably for a full decade. Fortunately, with the aid of medication and physical therapy, I am much better now. My condition, however, could deteriorate immediately, should one of these loud juggernauts smack into me again. I never got a look at the insect’s license plate, but I’m pretty sure that it was a member of the genus magicicada, otherwise known as “the seventeen year locust”…

Every summer, in the Eastern United States, there are a good many seventeen year locusts just DYING to terrify little girls, land on sandwiches or bounce off of your windshield. It isn’t the fault of the locusts: They’ve got three weeks to live and they are living hard. They’ve spent thirteen or seventeen years underground and they are finally FREE. How do you compress seventeen years of living into a scant twenty-one days?

Did You Know… If you could take all cicada nymphs from a single tree, clean them and weigh them, you’d be a person who could really get things done. I salute you…

Many entomologists will tell you that a seventeen-year locust is NOT a locust. I disagree. If everyone calls it a locust, it IS a locust. The most that you can say is that the seventeen-year locust is not the same as the other locusts. Other locusts are grasshoppers. Other locusts devastate crops. Other locusts swarm. Other locusts took my pudding…it’s ALWAYS the OTHER locust! Magicada was first called “locust” by European settlers who, in trying to determine what the insect horde was, used the only book that they had: The Christian Bible. The large clumsy insects appeared to be a plague and they were definitely not frogs, lice or burning hail; so, they were deemed locusts…

Exploded View of the Cicada

The seventeen-year locust is about an inch long. Like a panther with a hangover, it has a black body and red eyes. Unlike the panther, magicada has clear veined wings. Their bodies are very hard more due to chitin than to regular exercise. On the average, they each have a head, thorax and an abdomen. Some might seem to have two of each; however, that is usually a pair of them standing very close together. If you see a cicada without a head, thorax or abdomen, you are probably looking at what entomologists call, “a pile of legs”…

The cicada, despite the reputation that I am trying to give it, is harmless to people, crops, insects and glaciers. It doesn’t even do much damage to its food source. You see, the seventeen-year locust is a sap-sucker; it doesn’t, however, suck enough sap to worry its host tree. It does make a lot of noise, though. The timbal, located at the base of the abdomen, is a system of thin membranes and rib-like structures which vibrate to produce the loudest sound of any insect. This sound is made louder through body cavities in the cicada acting as echo chambers…the same technology used to make many pop singers seem talented…

Did you know… Magicada can produce sounds of over one hundred decibels. This is twenty decibels lower than the tortured screams of those driven insane by their incessant chirping…

This God-awful noise attracts female cicadas, or perhaps they simply approach the males to get them to shut up. Either way, mating occurs and the female is ready to lay eggs and die. The male goes to the nearest highway to find the first freshly cleaned windshield he can throw himself into.

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Great on the grill!

Eggs are laid into slits that the female has made in tree branches. When the eggs hatch, the nymphs fall to the ground. Barely reflecting upon the poor quality of their parents, the newly hatched cicadas burrow down to the tree’s roots. Occasionally, one will burrow up, but it will stop once it reaches the ionosphere. Those with a well-developed sense of direction will burrow down from one to eight feet. There it will reside for thirteen or seventeen years, depending upon what brand it is. While underground, the seventeen-year locust will molt four times with one to four years between moltings. For its final molting, the cicada will emerge from the earth, climb a tree, leave its chitinous shell, spread its wings and fly into the nearest forehead…

Seventeen-year locusts are separated into “broods”. These broods are numbered I through XVII for the cicadas with a seventeen-year cycle; and, XVIII through XXX for those with a thirteen-year cycle. This numbering scheme was created by C. Martlet in 1907, apparently before Arabic numbers had been introduced to the west (or before they had been introduced to C. Martlet). Some broods don’t exist but are included as kind of an inside joke. The most populous brood is brood X, which should be ruining our summers again in 2021.

Did you know… In many countries, the cicada is considered food. This is one reason you should avoid kissing foreigners…

Seventeen-year locusts are NOT endangered, despite the wishes of many. They flourish as far north as Michigan, as far west as Tennessee and as far east as you can go without splashing. We live in what can be loosely construed to be harmony with this pest. It is definitely a part of Americana. Rob Zombie wrote a touching tribute to magicicada in his song Seventeen-year Locust.

Enchanted on the highway,

All the freaks collide,

One minute longer,

You start the slide,

Well, I ain’t the one

Burning in your eye,

Well, I ain’t the one,

Call a suicide

(Come on)