They’ve been living under our feet for seventeen years. Biding their time. Feeding, growing stronger, adding crunch to their armor. Preparing for a four week orgy of speed, noise, and sex. And soon, their time will come.
Are you ready for the cicadapocalypse?
If you’ve spent any time on the East Coast, you’re probably familiar with the annual cicada. They hide high in the foliage, thickening the humid summer air with their screaming mating calls. You may have spotted the dried shells of their nymphs hanging to the bark of a tree trunk. The bugs spent years underground in this form, sucking sap off the tree roots. When they crawl forth from the earth, their adult form – black of body, pale of belly, and red of eye – bursts from the nymph skin and takes flight.
As a kid, I used to collect the nymph shells, their hook-shaped claws still sticky, the husks themselves dried and delicate; beautiful and alien. With their coloring and large size — they can be over an inch long — the adult cicadas look nefarious but are, in fact, harmless. They don’t bite or sting or carry disease. They just showed up to have a good time, sing their songs, sip a lil’ sap, make some babies. After that, they’re gone, along with the heat of summer.
This year marks the coming of a special species of cicada— the magicada, which appear in hordes of the billions, every 17 years. (And I’m not talking billions total. I mean billions per acre.) In 2004, their cousins the 13 year cicada appeared, and I remember these well from when I visited my brother in Baltimore. There, they swarmed the trees in all their various stages — adults, nymphs, and the especially creepy ghost-white post-metamorphic youth — in such numbers that the trunks writhed with their forms, the bark seemingly come alive, the familiar made strange. It was like an insect porno, a cicada swingers’ party, the brittle winged bodies piling up in a great reproductive mass. And the noise! Nature’s car alarm, or some echoing synthesized tone repeating in a club, the vibration faded up and down in my awareness, but never ceased, an external heartbeat. It was awesomely bizarre.
So I am pretty stoked about the coming masses, which bear the horror-movie monicker “Brood II.” The horrific nature of these insects is partly why they appeal to me so much. Though not deadly they are undeniably creepy, a Stephen King novel in your backyard. What’s not to love about that?
All parents should be excited for the invasion, I think. How often do we have the opportunity for such close investigations of nature in all of her strange, wonderful glory? My son, almost four, already knows the word cycle. We talk about the water cycle, the cycle of seasons, and, most recently, the cycle of dandelions from yellow flower to pale puffball to airborne seed. If our backyard erupts in insects, he’ll be able to see another life cycle up close and personal. They’ll enable us to discuss death — about 98% of the critters die without mating, providing a quick and easy snack for birds, squirrels, and other predators who will literally grow fat crunching on them.
Even culinary adventurous humans say they make good snacks. People have made cicada ice cream, pestos, dumplings. And before you turn up your nose, remember that they appear alongside crickets and other insects in markets throughout Asia. “The shrimp of the land,” one scientist called them. And I don’t know about you, but I love shrimp. Especially with cocktail sauce. (You can find cicada recipes here.)
The cold weather we’ve been having recently might be keeping the bugs at bay. They won’t rise till the ground warms up a bit, which could happen anytime in the next few weeks. So get ready to have a science experiment in your backyard! For the hearty, nature-loving kid, magicadas might make good playthings. And if these creatures seem gross or unlikable to you, put on a brave face for your youngsters. Remember, your kids are watching you, adopting your attitudes about nature as your own. Cicadapocalypse is an exciting opportunity to learn about and observe and just be overwhelmed by the insect world. Put aside your prejudices and just go for it. These guys have been waiting for 17 years for this summer. It’s going to be some party!