Frisky Q&A: Discussing The 2013 Cicada Invasion With My Dad, A Man Who Loves Cicadas

As you probably know by now, the cicadas are coming. Thirty billion cicadas, to be exact, are poised to swarm the northeastern United States pretty much any day now after spending the past 17 years underground. Many of my east coast friends have already vowed to stay inside for four to six weeks while the cicadas dutifully buzz, breed, and die; others are dreading the inevitable clean-up of the billions of crunchy post-coital cicada corpses. But one person I know is really excited about the cicada invasion: my dad. For as long as I can remember, cicada breeding seasons have been like extended Christmases for my family. I’d often find my dad out in the yard listening to the cicadas’ deafening buzz with his eyes closed, as if it were the most beautiful symphony he’d ever heard. On the exciting occasion that he would catch one of the massive insects, he’d pass it around to my brothers and me, instructing us to gently close our hands around it and feel the vibrations emitted by its trademark buzzing. Even a passionate bug hater like me had to admit it was pretty cool.

How could anyone love these much-loathed insects? Why are they so damn loud? Can cicadas hurt people? What advice does he have for people who are scared of this year’s “Swarmageddon”? Read on to get the scoop on cicadas from their biggest fan, my dad…

Winona: Why do you love cicadas?

Winona’s Dad: I am always fascinated how nature responds to the processes and interplay of life on this planet. The cicada’s “purpose” is to replace itself for the continued existence of the species. Their strategy is fecundity and a nymphal stage that lasts up to seventeen years. The faithful iteration of their form and associated behaviors passed down through geologic time scales needs to be respected.

What sets cicadas apart from other insects?

Their remarkable circadian “clock”, which appears to be a single gene loci, prompts the cicada nymph when it is time to finally grow up and dig for daylight. The development of odd-numbered years (13 and 17) for each brood’s emergence is a strange coincidence where the numbers are primes. Another interesting observation is, of 30 known broods, 17 broods have a 17-year emergence cycle and 13 broods have a 13-year cycle. I will be having a sale on tinfoil* hats in the lobby after the show.

Why do they make that noise?

It’s cicada amore! The main buzzing you hear is a chorus-buzz by many males gathered together to attract females. When the females are detected by males they will make little wing-snaps, causing the males to create a species-specific love buzzzzzz in the hope of sealing the deal.

Where does the buzzing sound actually come from? 

Tymbals. These are the sound producing organs of the male cicada. There are paired cavities covered by a membrane at the base of the abdomen surrounding rib-like structures attached to muscles cords. These muscles contract, deforming the “ribs” and causing them to SNAP into a tension position. As the muscles relax the rib snap back into its original shape. Do this fast enough and you get the BZZZZZZ you will come to love. [I’m not sure about the “love” part. — Winona] My wonderment goes to the question: when you hold one in your closed hand and feel the power of that buzz, why don’t the soft parts of cicadas become mush with the nearly constant vibration coursing through their bodies?

What advice would you give to people who are freaked out about the impending cicada invasion?

Depends upon the basis of their apprehension. If they have been through a mega-hatch before such as the one predicted for this May-June, their disquiet might be based upon volumes: volume in sheer numbers of insects and the volume of cicadas’ 100 decibel buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz 24/7 for several weeks. In either case, you know what to expect and should begin looking for recipes to exploit nature’s abundance. Neophytes must gird their loins for apocryphal tales from gruff-but-lovable old farts who have seen it all before. Failing that, open your mind to the pulse of a natural phenomenon not yet diminished by our species.

Can cicadas hurt people? Do they bite?

Cicadas do not have chewing mouth parts so they can not bite. They do have a proboscis (straw-like mouth part) used to suck plant juices. This feature could puncture the skin if the insect decided to taste you but it is very unlikely. Other ways cicadas could hurt someone is flying into their eye, e.g. while riding a motorcycle. While they like to climb up things and orient themselves on vertical surfaces, they could congregate on a road in sufficient numbers to cause a vehicle to lose control from multitudes of squashed bodies. Otherwise they are fun to put down someone’s pants.

Many people just think cicadas are creepy as hell. What is your response to this?

I think this effect arises from their face. Their eyes are multi-faceted and act as a jillion tiny retro-reflectors, whose shifting highlights creates the appearance of “following you.” They are also a relatively big insect and this often triggers some primal avoidance behaviors in humans. Which could be another way you might be hurt by cicadas–if one flies in the window of your car and you drive off the road swatting at it. [This is exactly how I will die. — Winona]

Why do cicadas wait so long between appearances? What are they doing the whole time they’re underground?

The nymphs hatch and drop to the ground, burrowing down to any roots they can find where they undergo five nymphal stages before they emerge and become an Imago or adult form. All this is quite conventional, with some variations, for many insects until the years start rolling by. Why and how cicadas live so long is a big and basic question. What is in it for the cicada? What selective benefit does a long life span and coordinated emergence confer upon a species? One strategy is to overwhelm predators with more cicadas than they can possibly eat.

If cicadas were humans, what do you think their personalities would be like? Would you be friends with a human cicada? 

I would characterize a human-cicada amalgam as an unfortunate soul on the bus, who scans the near horizon for the particulars that best support their immediate survival while engaging an inner and outer dialogue to mirror the buzzing imperative of the cicada. I would be friends from afar.

*Actually aluminum.

If you have any specific cicada questions for my dad, send me an email at [email protected] and I’ll forward it to him for you.