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Nashville Scene Old Red Eyes is Back

The real buzz on cicadas.

By Michael Sims

JUNE 1, 1998:  When Rip Van Winkle awoke after his long nap, he found a different world. No doubt the same culture shock has greeted the 13-year cicadas that have emerged in the last couple of weeks. They've missed a lot. When the wingless young insects went underground in 1985, Tipper Gore was denouncing rock music lyrics and automobiles were using leaded gasoline. Time flies.

By now, probably everyone in Middle Tennessee has seen both the adults, with their orange-veined wings and red eyes, and the abandoned brown skins of the immatures (called nymphs). These aren't our annual crop of cicadas, whose rising and falling buzz lends summer its soundtrack. Those won't emerge until late July. The variety with us now is about half the size of our summer species and looks quite different. These are Brood XIX of the 13-year periodical cicada. Entomologists have been watching it since the brood was numbered in a national survey begun in 1893, but the earliest informal record of it dates all the way back to 1686.

Recent cicada sightings around town include a man walking into a restaurant with one crawling up his pants leg; a woman who stopped pumping gas and went into a mad dance when one flew into her hair; and an insect-eating fox terrier with one caught in his beard. Bud's Liquors in Green Hills put up a sign declaring "CICADAS LOVE MG VALLEJO MAGS." Gardeners at Cheekwood have taken to wearing earplugs to avoid being deafened by the cicada chorus. Countless citizens have been overheard uttering off-color variations on "Enough already."

Like Hollywood or an oil-rich emirate, nature's Research & Development department has unlimited resources. The result is all around us--insects dying by the millions, on windshields and all over streets, on porches and window screens. Many die before they have a chance to reproduce. Napoleon said he had such a huge army he could afford to lose 30,000 men each day. Nature has even more cicadas to spare. No matter how many are dying out there, their brethren fill the trees and the air.

Time Travelers

Every few years, cicada experts emerge from their subterranean obscurity and bask in the limelight for a few weeks. Then, presumably, they become dormant until we need them again. For some time now, one of the region's busiest entomologists has been Steven Murphree, associate professor of biology at Belmont University.

"Cicadas," Murphree says, "might be called insect time-travelers, or the Methuselahs of the insect world." There are three species in this brood, all members of the genus Magicicada, so named because of their magically synchronized emergence. "The big thing with Magicicada is that they overwhelm everything," says Murphree. "They overwhelm any predators opportunistic enough to feed on them. They get full of them; they get sick of eating them; so there are still plenty left to mate and produce plenty of immatures for the next generation."

For some time now, preparations for this eruption have been taking place around us. Early this month, the first cicada nymphs reached maturity. Still unable to fly, they tunneled to the surface for the first time. It's tempting to imagine them blinking in the sudden light, but with their fixed eyes, cicadas can't blink. Next, as many of us observed, the nymphs crawled across the ground and climbed up on whatever would hold them--especially, of course, tree trunks. They locked their claws onto the surface. Then the transformation began.

It's an impressive performance. First the nymph's skin splits open down the middle of its back and the winged adult climbs out. As it emerges, it leans backward and hangs upside down, looking for all the world like a tiny bungee jumper about to drop toward the ground. The white ones you saw were not albinos. The nymphs emerge off-white, but after a couple of hours they turn dark brown. Shortly afterward, the nymph spreads its new wings and, if it isn't already on a tree, flies to the nearest one.

The cicadas' translucent wings bear exquisitely lacy veins, one area of which is darker than the rest and seems to be in the shape of a W. The superstitious once claimed that this letter foretold "War," although "Wednesday" seems just as likely.

Naturally, the emergence is a windfall for insect-eating birds and other animals. However, Murphree remarks, "no predator species is tuned into the life cycle." As one entomologist pointed out a couple of years ago, cicadas are a classic example of how insects evolve complex methods for avoiding being preyed upon. To make them even more unpredictable, some occasionally emerge off-schedule. "All the predators are just opportunistic feeders," Murphree says, "like robins, starlings, and squirrels. Fish eat them when they fall in lakes. They serve as good fish bait and can even be frozen." Also, many dogs and cats, alerted by the activity, quickly develop a taste for cicada snacks.

Although cicadas don't bite or sting, they have one defense mechanism you should know about. When disturbed, as they fly away they shoot liquid excrement in your general direction. That may be what you felt on your forehead yesterday afternoon as you walked under a tree. Nature works in mysterious ways.

Like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, each cicada leaves behind the hollow, lifeless shell of its former body. No doubt you have seen your share of the grotesque mementos clinging to tree trunks, telephone poles, the sides of buildings, even road signs. They're piled as thick as mulch around the roots of some trees. If you bother to look at the papery husks, you'll see, through the slit in the back, what look like white threads. These are the tubes that allowed the cicada to breathe. Insects draw oxygen through the sides of their bodies.

Musical though they may be, cicadas don't sing like birds or frogs. Like creatures from behind Alice's looking glass, they are musical instruments that play themselves. Crickets and katydids rub their legs as if dragging bows across violins. Cicadas, on the other hand, are percussionists. They vibrate drumlike organs in their abdomens.

The cicada chorus, like the Vienna Boy Choir, consists entirely of male performers. Short-changed in the beauty department, male cicadas must rely upon talent to lure their silent prospective mates. Murphree says one of his entomologist friends "describes the cicada chorus as sort of a Sadie Hawkins dance, because it's all about mating." The calls attract other males, creating throngs of competing performers. That's why some areas are noisier than others. When you sit on the porch and listen to the familiar thrumming, you are hearing countless six-legged percussionists broadcasting a personals ad: "Hey, baby, I'm God's gift to female cicadas!"

Murphree explains the process: "The males set up chorusing centers generally in a row of trees or sometimes around the edge of a wood. They start calling together. Sometimes there's almost a pulsating sound to it. When they get to a female, they begin mating. Then she'll go off and lay eggs and die. The males, however, can mate more than once.

"The most common of the three species in Nashville produces a series of clicks and buzzes that speed up at the end. In a chorus of this species, an occasional ear-splitting crescendo erupts. Another locally abundant species sounds something like 'Phaaaaa-roh,' only as if you're humming and whistling at the same time. By the way, if you mimic it yourself, supposedly you can get a group of males to stop chorusing and listen to you." Murphree enthusiastically demonstrates the call. This is, after all, a man who actually owns a cicada costume.

The old man who became a cicada

When they encountered their first brood of periodical cicadas, the European colonists in North America thought God was smiting them with a biblical plague of locusts. But cicadas are not locusts, and they are not a plague. They aren't even cousins of the crop-ravagers. "While they do occasionally feed on tree sap as adults," Murphree says, "this causes little damage. Whereas a locust is a grasshopper-like insect that has very damaging feeding behavior."

Like everything else in nature, cicadas have been assigned a variety of symbolic roles. A recent essay in Christian Century used them as symbols of the Resurrection. They also represented resurrection in Chinese mythology. Jade cicadas in the mouths of the dead guaranteed immortality for the soul within. The Greeks said that cicadas were bloodless and lived on dew. In one Greek story, Tithonus falls in love with the goddess of the dawn. He asks for immortality but actually slowly grows older, becoming ever smaller until eventually he becomes a cicada.

The insects' musicianship has long been admired. There is a Greek myth about a man who broke a string on his lyre but was able to continue playing because a cicada sat on the lyre and performed the missing note. Speaking of cicadas and katydids, Walt Whitman said, "I thought the morning and evening warble of birds delightful; but I find I can listen to these strange insects with just as much pleasure." Granted, had Whitman been walking around Nashville in the last week or so, he might have changed his mind. Understandably, many people simply find the noise tiresome. These curmudgeons, too, have a mythic champion. When cicadas awoke him, Hercules begged Zeus to quiet them so he could get some rest.

After the females succumb to the hotshot performers and mate with them, they cut slits in pencil-size twigs, where they lay their eggs. They can lay a total of 400 to 600 eggs.

This is where cicadas do their actual damage. Frequently, the egg-loaded twigs die, even hanging limp with their leaves turning brown. Biologists call this devastation "flagging." Sometimes you can see brown areas among the green foliage, indicating that a tree has been damaged by cicadas.

Roughly six weeks later, the immatures hatch from the eggs, emerge out of the twigs, and fall to the ground. Immediately, they burrow into the soil and begin to suck sap from roots. How long they remain underground depends upon their species. This season's population will emerge in the spring of 2011.

Cicadas have inspired a curious legacy. On your next trip to New York, you can make a reservation for dinner at the chic restaurant Cicada and then wander over to the Village to visit Cicada Body Adornments, which offers designer body piercing. Athenian men wore cicada-shaped hair ornaments, and a recent kitchenware catalogue featured cicada knife-rests. It isn't surprising that such talented insects show up in music. The piano duo Double Edge composed a classical work entitled "Cicada," and Rodney Crowell and others perform in a band called the Cicadas. The creatures even show up in children's song books.

In 1990, when Chicago experienced its most recent emergence of the 17-year variety, University of Chicago ecology professor Monte Lloyd encouraged people to try them as a snack: "They are quite good, like avocado and new potato mixed," he said. Of course, cultures around the world eat everything from puppies to chocolate-covered ants. For most of us, however, that doesn't make the thought of eating a cicada any more appetizing. Nevertheless, here's one of Lloyd's recipes:

Dip the cicadas in batter, then fry until they're golden brown. Serve with sour cream or a cocktail sauce. You'll be glad to know they can also be used as a pizza topping.

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