I was enjoying a leasurely cup of coffee and catching up on three weeks of our small town newspaper, when I read the following letter to the Editor.
EDITOR: While my 12-year old son and I were working on Father's Day, for no particular reason at all he mentioned he would be 29 next time the cicadas would appear here. I haven't found anything written about the "purpose" of cicadas; it seems their life cycle is enigmatic to the writers of the several websites I've read. But for however annoying many find them, if nothing else maybe they serve to remind us about all that has changed since their last appearance and all that will be different and unrecognizable by their next one. (excerpt from a letter written by a local father.)
My response: I am not an entomologist but married someone who worked for 25 years at the Somerset County Park Commission Environmental Education Center, so I've learned a lot over the years regarding bugs, insects, bats, and natural resources I never would have given a second thought; my life becoming so much richer for that. Regarding the purpose of cicadas and their enigmatic life cycle, I turned first to our trusty old encyclopedias, then to five books about insects. Prior to the letter written to our local newspaper, I had been to numerous websites that were very informative, the best and most humorous was written in a question and answer format by entomologist and cicada expert, Professor Mike Raupp, who also appeared on Jay Leno.
As my now 23 and 27 year old sons and I marvelled recently at the delicate wings of several adult cicadas, the exoskeletons clinging to screens and deer netting, the small determined holes in the ground around our old apple tree; I too, thought of the passage of time, yet in reverse. Seventeen years ago when Magicicada emerged and were knee-deep at Bedwell Elementary and Middle Schools, it seemed some of my sons' classmates thought it was funny to pull one wing off to torture the cicadas.
Bullying was just beginning to be addressed. The Lion King, with its signature song Circle of Life had yet to become a well taught concept, much less a suburban concern. My sons had both already learned that every insect's life had a purpose, affecting not just the environment but animals and humans as well. So, the kind but unfortunate Principal Glen Lampa, got a semi-melodramatic phone call or letter or both from me, regarding teachers allowing the children to maim and/or kill the cicadas at recess or while waiting for the bus.
I suggested the presence of cicadas as an educational opportunity for them to learn not only about the interdependence of different species, but the understanding that it is never okay to hurt something just because of appearance or lack of understanding. Life lesson. Children, at that wonderful age, still listen to some adults and teachers and they tell their friends. Peer pressure at its best. Soon, cicadas were being protected, given names, kids asked more and more questions. There was no more torture or killing.
From the book sources, I include the following information, condensed:
From the Encyclopedia Britannica Volume 5, 1972
Male cicadas produce very loud noises by vibrating paired dorso-lateral membranes (timbals) located at the base of the abdomen. In some species the "song" is musical, but most North American cicadas produce rhythmical ticks, buzzes or whines. Females are not known to sing. Over 2000 species are known. Besides the dog-day cicadas (Tibicen species and others) that appear yearly in mid summer, there are periodic cicadas. These smaller Magicicada species, with reddish eyes and wing veins instead of the green and black of dog-day cicadas are among the most fascinating. There are three North American species of 17-year cicadas and 3 Southern 13-year species. Both occur in large numbers called broods. Song has been shown to be the primary isolating mechanism, as well as the primary congregating mechanism.
Males of each species have three distinct sound responses: (1) a congregational song, regulated by daily fluctuations in climate conditions and by hearing songs by other males; (2) a courtship song, usually produced prior to mating; (3) a disturbance squawk produced when captured, held, disturbed into flight or otherwise irritated.
my note: That information alone should be fascinating enough, but there's more!
Cicadas have been an important source of human food dating from at least the time of ancient Greek culture. They are kept as pets in many lands. In the past, cicadas were used in folk medicine in several Oriental and Mediterranean countries. They have been used as religious and monetary symbols, as well as in mythology, literature and music of varying cultures.
From Simon & Shuster's Guide to Insects, by Dr. Ross H. Arnett, Jr. and Dr. Richard L. Jacques, Jr. 1981
These broods have been carefully mapped and it is now possible to determine when and where they will emerge. This is important to fruit growers.
From Rodale's Color Handbook of Garden Insects, by Anna Carr. 1979
To avoid problems with these insects (the 13 and 17-year cicadas) keep track of the years when large broods are expected. Protect young fruit trees with mosquito netting. Band trees with a sticky material, such as Tanglefoot or Stickem, that will trap the nymphs as they ascend the trunks. Prune injured branches as soon as possible.
Most cicadas spend only 5-6 weeks above ground as winged adults. For most of their lives, as nymphs, they grope about in the dark root systems of trees and sod. They molt several times before digging their way out of the ground. They climb trees and feed for several weeks, mate, then lay eggs in slits made in tree twigs. Two months later, eggs hatch and a new generation of nymphs burrow into the soil.
From the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders, by Lorus and Margery Milne. 1984
The simultaneous appearance of thousands of cicadas during a few weeks overwhelms predators, permitting the great majority to mate undisturbed. Unlike cicadas of other genera, Periodical Cicadas emerge in a single locality only once every 13 or 17 years. Each synchronized population is called a brood. Only 14 broods of 17-year cicadas and 5 broods of 13-year cicadas are known to exist today. Broods that are separated by 4 years tend to overlap in geographic distribution, whereas those separated by only 1 year border each other geographically without any overlap.
Perhaps my favorite book, Field Book of Insects, of the United States and Canada, aiming to answer common questions, by Frank E. Lutz, Ph.D. was first copyrighted in 1918, then again in 1921 and finally in 1935. It contains a dedication written by him, "To my Entomological Colleagues at the American Museum of Natural History and to You" as well as a foreword of sorts from Rev. J.G. Wood:
The study of entomology is one of the most fascinating of pursuits. It takes its votaries into the treasure-houses of Nature, and explains some of the wonderful series of links which form the great chain of creation. It lays open before us another world, of which we have been hitherto unconscious, and shows us that the tiniest insect, so small perhaps that the unaided eye can scarcely see it, has its work to do in the world, and does it.