“It eats nothing belonging to the earth and drinks only dew, proving cleanliness, purity and propriety; it will not accept wheat or rice, thus indicating its probity and honesty; and finally – how appealing to celestial conservatives! – it appears always at a fixed time, showing it is endowed with fidelity, sincerity and truthfulness.”
– Lafcadio Hearn, Chinese Scholar, 1900
“It’s an ugly bug” –
Southern Culture on the Skids, “Cicada Rock,” 1991
No recollection of Southern childhood is complete without a background chorus of cicadas. The pulling whine of their song accompanies the memory of every summer evening, the air hung thick with the humid sweetness of honeysuckle, the softly creeping darkness punctuated by the pinpoint incandescence of fireflies. And yet, the cicada is an ugly bug. The incongruous connection of these two truths, the peaceful regularity of the cicada’s song and the unbridled terror felt upon the first discovery of a cicada’s hollowed shell—or even worse, the red and bulging eyes of its elephantine corpse, is among the rudest awakenings of the Southern childhood. Perhaps, however, the cicada has not been given its due. It may not be among the most visually pleasing of invertebrates, but it is certainly one of the most impressive.
Long its claim to fame, the cicada’s song is among the loudest of the insect world. While those of us beneath the trees simply perceive the rise and fall of rapid-fire canasta chatter, each of the 2,000 species of cicada can produce and identify its own specific song, varying in tone, rhythm, and style, which it uses to locate others of its kind. The male cicada creates the familiar sound, not by rubbing his wings together (a popular technique in the insect world), but with a unique pair of muscles, called tymbals, located at the back of his abdomen. When these muscles are contracted, they put pressure on the web of rib-like bands that make up the cicada’s abdomen, and this compression causes the ribs to buckle in and pop back out, creating the familiar crick of a cicada’s call. This sound echoes and intensifies inside the cicada’s hollow abdomen, resulting in a song that can reach up to 108.9 decibels—somewhere between the noise level of a jackhammer and a jet-engine—that can be heard from up to a mile away. The cicada’s call comes in three unique variations, each with a message: distress, courtship, and looking for love.
The male’s song is intense out of necessity; their mating season is incredibly brief, especially when one considers the fact that some cicadas spend up to seventeen years waiting for it. Though many cicadas have a life cycle that runs with the predictable brevity of an insect, there are others, called periodic cicadas, that have developed a defense mechanism termed “predator satiation,” a technique that hinges on the hope that even the greediest of predators are only physically capable of consuming so much. These cicadas run through the normal life cycle of the species: the females lay eggs in ridges they have scraped in trees, the eggs hatch, the larvae drop to the ground and burrow about a foot down—but then periodic cicadas sharply diverge from others of their kind. Rather than emerging the next season, these cicadas remain underground for thirteen to seventeen years, and then, as if on cue, they all burst forth at once, indulge in a frenzy of calling, mating, and egg laying, then die, beginning the process all over again. Scientists estimate that periodic cicadas can appear in densities of up to one and a half million per acre, making it impossible for the insect’s predators, from opportunistic squirrels to the ominously named cicada-killer wasp, to consume them all. Ventures across the nation have begun to record and predict these massive “broods,” the next of which, a thirteen-year species anticipated primarily in Louisiana and Missouri, is scheduled to emerge this year.
Though the cicada may not be an insect unique to the South, the South has dealt with it in a uniquely Southern way. While the great thinkers of Ancient Greece revered them as favorites of the muses, philosophers of China honor them as a symbol of rebirth, and kitchens from Burma to the Congo feature them on menus, the American South has remained doggedly indecisive on cicadas. Songs, essays, and articles bemoaning their ruckus, celebrating their song, railing against their horticultural insensitivity, and hailing their arrival as a precursor to the apocalypse, all make it difficult to ascertain just where cicadas rest in the Southern psyche. Whether they are perceived as a bane or boon, however, there is one thing that all can agree on: a Southern evening just wouldn’t be a Southern evening without the sweet song of a cicada overhead.