Imagine spending 13 yrs in the humid darkness of an underground burrow system sucking sap, then responding to some unknown but powerfully compelling cue to burst out of the ground and emerge with thousands of others in a synchronized event of military precision!
As a nymph, you’d haul yourself by your powerful, spiky forelimbs to a vertical plant or structure, then up it, climbing to gain sufficient height for your maiden flight and pausing to split open your golden skin-shell you’d laboriously emerge as a glorious black and gold adult periodical cicada (Magicicada).
After a period of repose clinging there, surveying your world with eyes like jasper, ‘hardening off’ your lustrous new skin and pumping blood into your golden wings to spread them, you’d launch with buzzing wing-beats into the humid air, arcing swiftly upwards into the welcoming branches of a tall oak tree. There to sing in order to attract your mate. Apparently many thousands of these cicadas can gather in popular ‘chorus trees’ and their singing volume can reach 100 Db or so.
I watched these fascinating insects on Sunday, May 1oth 2015 at a family Catfish fry-up in Eros, Louisiana. The Catfish was excellent and the emergence of 13-year periodical cicadas made for an intriguing backdrop to Mothers’ Day. The cicadas, though often called ‘locusts’ aren’t kin to grasshoppers, but are in a different family that includes leaf hoppers.
Periodical cicadas synchronize their lives in different groups, known as broods, and have 7, 13, and 17 year cycles. Last year, it was the turn of 17-year cicadas in Louisiana but I didn’t encounter them. Emerging to breed in these prime number life cycles is recognised as an effective strategy to become less vulnerable to predation. So far, no predators have adapted their own breeding schedules to coincide with the Magicicadas’, so the cicadas always outnumber their predators.
Sheer weight of numbers of these insects will hopefully always ensure their survival. The Magicicada’s burrows are curved and a probing stick revealed a depth of over 6 inches. Their synchronized passage from soil to tree-tops represents an animal migration that is as impressive to my mind as that of the Wildebeest or the crabs of Christmas Island.
Cicadas in art – In ancient China, cicadas were depicted on Chou Dynasty bronze artifacts and later carved as jade statuettes, they are thought to have represented rebirth or reincarnation. I can see why this periodicity would have impressed itself on the artists and their customers.
By July these particular Magicicadas will have gone, but they’ll have started families of their own by laying eggs up in the trees to perpetuate their line. Watch out for them in May 2028!
For more information on the 2015 Brood XXIII Cicadas please see Dr. Cooley’s informative website Magicicada.org
Text and images by Charles Paxton, 2015