The Magic Cicada

By Anita Sanchez

They’ve been lurk­ing under­ground for a long time. Down in the dark­ness they tun­nel, bur­row­ing far beneath lawns and side­walks and forests, shov­ing slow­ly between grains of soil, feed­ing on tiny sips of sap from tree roots. They’ve been down there quite a while: sev­en­teen years is a long time to wait for anything.

This is the year that the peri­od­i­cal cicadas of Brood X have their brief moment in the sun.

There are many species of cica­da, and around here in upstate New York we enjoy the late sum­mer song of the annu­al cica­da — that melod­ic cry that’s a mix of buzz saw and car alarm, blar­ing from the tree­tops in the hottest days of August. Annu­al cicadas are a dif­fer­ent species from the sev­en­teen-year ones — they spend only a few years below ground before emerg­ing in late sum­mer to ser­e­nade us.

Although they are unnerv­ing­ly big and loud, these crea­tures are absolute­ly harm­less — they don’t bite, they don’t sting. They don’t eat crops, harm gar­dens, pets, or chil­dren, or do any sig­nif­i­cant dam­age to trees.

Sad­ly, we’re not with­in the range of the spec­tac­u­lar Brood X, which cov­ers a large area slight­ly to the south of us. It’s just one of sev­er­al broods of those mys­te­ri­ous crea­tures, the peri­od­i­cal cicadas, that emerge every sev­en­teen years. (There are also some species of thir­teen-year cicadas.)

Why wait sev­en­teen years, and then emerge all togeth­er in such vast num­bers? They’re wield­ing a strat­e­gy known as preda­tor sati­a­tion. If you’re small, clum­sy, slow-mov­ing, and deli­cious­ly crunch­able, you’re very like­ly to be eat­en by the thou­sands of preda­tors lying in wait for the feast. But even tens of thou­sands of preda­tors can’t begin to eat all of the bil­lions of peri­od­i­cal cicadas, all emerg­ing at the same time.

Nev­er was a genus of insects so well-named: Magi­ci­ca­da. It does seem mag­i­cal, all those minia­ture mon­sters silent­ly ris­ing from the ground, like when Jason sowed the dragon’s teeth and the skele­ton war­riors appeared.

The cicadas who don’t imme­di­ate­ly become part of the food chain wend their way to a near­by bush or tree trunk. Then the brown, ungain­ly nymphs mirac­u­lous­ly shed their skins to become a sparkling fresh crea­ture, with wings of trans­par­ent sil­ver and mad ruby eyes.

Then they make their way up to the tree­tops, and begin to sing — or rather to vibrate a mem­brane in their abdomen, which pro­duces that echo­ing sound. The males belt out their dement­ed cho­rus to attract the ladies, and for a few brief weeks, it’s an orgy of song and sex. And then it’s the end. Then they all die, all the mad singers. But the eggs they leave behind soon hatch, and then anoth­er brood goes under­ground.

Until sev­en­teen years from now, when they’ll rise again, like a spring tide ris­ing under the moon.

Summer 2021

Volume 39 , Number 2

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