“We call you happy, O cicada, because after you have drunk a little dew from the treetops you sing like a queen.”
– Ancient Greek ode to the cicada
Close the screen door and cover the boat deck. Put the pool cover over the pool. Defend your fledgling vegetable garden seedlings and starts. Close the attic windows. Batten down your homestead hatches, whether rural or urban. Break out some of your best top-water bass fishing lures while you are at it. The cicadas are hatching.
There are numerous types of “one year cicadas” around the world which only hatch for 365 days and then awaken, but the species which is unique to America’s eastern seaboard are designated “magicicadas” [ as in magic cicadas ] and this variety, known by their large bulging red eyes, follows the 17 year hatch cycle. Bane or blessing, it’s a uniquely “east coast America” experience to witness this 17 year hatch, for it does not take place anywhere else in the world. The insects are completely harmless, non-aggressive, not poisonous, they do not sting or bite, so fear not their massive emergence this summer. They might overwhelm you, however, with their deafening mating song, which is said to be so loud in places on the east coast that it drowns out the sound of planes flying overhead. This phenomenon is also known as an “active chorus.”
After a 17 year dormancy period during which they are buried in the ground, asleep, incubating and formative, the magicicadas are waking up, hatching out, drying off newly unfurled wet wings, and will soon swarm the USA east coast by the umpteen billions in an epic ‘insectoid’ public mosh pit event which last took place in 1996 when Bill Clinton was still president and Hillary was still wearing headbands now and again.
Even if the 2013 hatch [ also known as “brood II ] is a mere 30 billion insects, if they were all lined up head to tail, they’d reach to the moon and back. Ponder that!
“Since 1996, this group of 1-inch bugs, in wingless nymph form, has been a few feet underground, sucking on tree roots and biding their time. They will emerge only when the ground temperature reaches precisely 64 degrees. After a few weeks up in the trees, they will die and their offspring will go underground, not to return until 2030.”
I grew up in the south, so I know the call of the mysterious insect well. The nighttime sound of a cicada is haunting and unmistakable. There was a cicada hatch which took place at some point during my childhood in central North Carolina, and we gathered their brown left-behind shells up and played with them like poker chips, or play money, or little toy trucks … or just fun things to stomp on and crunch. The delicate white ghostly insects had long abandoned these shells of their former selves, leaving the little brown crunchy exoskeletons lying on the ground by the millions. They were everywhere, so we found ways to play with them. It was a uniquely southern rite of passage as a little girl to be around to witness the sights and sounds which arrived when the cicadas hatched and began to sing their mating songs each night. The air would be filled with the unique insect music that only they know how to make. At times the sound was almost deafening, so you learned to love their pulsating, undulating screech, screech screech as it ebbed and flowed into the late evening. The call was always loudest right after sundown, a herald of the coming cool air which would flow over the land when the sun went down.
Cicadas are fascinating and mysterious little insects and their peculiar 17 year life cycle has inspired considerable myth, lore and legend:
“Many people know periodical cicadas by the name “17-year locusts” or “13-year locusts”, but they are not true locusts, which are a type of grasshopper. Their uniqueness has given them a special appeal and cultural status. Members of the Onondaga Nation near Syracuse NY maintain the oral tradition of being rescued from famine by periodical cicadas. Early European colonists viewed periodical cicadas with a mixture of religious apprehension and loathing. Modern Americans maintain numerous websites to assist in planning weddings, graduations, and other outdoor activities around Magicicada emergences.”
- In Chinese folklore the cicada is considered a sacred animal symbol of resurrection and rebirth.
- An old Italian myth tells the story of how cicadas came to earth to sing. A long time ago a young woman was blessed with a beautiful singing voice. So beautiful was her voice that when she died, the gods who missed the sound of her voice, allowed her to return to life every summer as the cicadas so she could continue to sing.
- Blue eyed cicadas, which occur genetically only one in a million times, do occur but are extremely rare. It’s considered an omen of great good fortune to find one of these rare blue eyed insects after a 17 year hatch.
- To the ancient Greeks the cicada symbolized resurrection, rebirth, and immortality and is mentioned as being sacred to the ancient Greek sun god Apollo. Homer mentions cicadas in the Iliad around 9000 BC and compares the discourse of “sage chiefs exempt from war” to the song of the cicada.
- Ancient Greeks and Chinese made a habit of keeping male cicadas in cages for the pleasure of hearing them sing. One Greek ode to the cicada says: “We call you happy, O cicada, because after you have drunk a little dew from the treetops you sing like a queen.”
- Cicadas have been featured on numerous coins. Members of ancient Roman nobility even wore gold broaches featuring cicadas to hold back their hair.
- In Taoism, the cicada is the symbol of the hsien, or soul, disengaging itself from the body at death. Cicadas are also featured in Japanese carvings on small medicine boxes and are mentioned in ancient Hindu law as long ago as 200 BC in India.
- Many cultures have used cicadas for medicinal purposes for anything from a cure for earaches (China & Japan) to a diuretic (France). In China, shed cicada skins or actual nymphs (all of which are silent) are collected and ground up. A tea made from these skins is given to noisy, crying babies in the hope that the baby will then be quiet like the cicada nymph rather than noisy like the adult cicada.
- In ancient Greek myths and legends the cicada has often represented insouciance, which means nonchalance and cool indifference. In one Greek legend Zeus grants a mortal, Tithonus, immortality but not eternal youth by turning him into a cicada.
- The Japanese associate the cicada with summer and songs of the cicada are often used in Japanese TV and films to indicate that the scene is occurring during summer. There is a song sung by the cicada in Japan that is said to represent the end of summer and when it is heard many of the children go out and collect the shells the cicadas have left behind when moulting. The Japanese also use the cicada in their philosophical teachings about rebirth, seeing it as a symbol of reincarnation.
Various photos photos taken of the massive new hatch and the billions of shells it leaves behind are below.
- Cicadas To Emerge In Massive Swarms After 17 Years Underground (huffingtonpost.com)
- They’re back: 17-year cicadas to swarm from Georgia to New York (reuters.com)
- 17-Year Cicadas Will Overrun The East Coast Any Day Now (businessinsider.com)
- Cicada brood begins to emerge after 17 years (wtvr.com)
- The Bugs Are Singing Again. (ceciliapthornton.wordpress.com)
- Cicada invasion on the way as insects with bulging red eyes crawl out of the earth after 17 years underground (independent.co.uk)
- 17-Year Cicadas to Swarm from Georgia to New York (voanews.com)
- They’re baaack! Cicadas emerge after 17 years (fox43.com)
- 17-Year Cicadas Emerge This Spring On East Coast (fox2now.com)