Periodical cicadas
June 28, 2002 9:22 AM   Subscribe

Periodical cicadas, the 13-year and 17-year varieties made up of 23 separate broods, sometimes emerge concurrently, as they did in Missouri in 1998. The result of their combined mating calls is a cacaphony. There are many different varieties of calls: those by Magicicada cassini, Magicicada septendecim and Magicicada septendecula are just a few. Brood XXIII is due this year. The prime numbers of the two cycles make it difficult for predators to evolve matching breeding cycles. More cicada links.
posted by TurkeyMustard (26 comments total)
Excellent post, thanks. Must explore....
posted by rushmc at 9:27 AM on June 28, 2002

Cicadas are also the most disgusting, fearless and repulsive bugs on the planet. I remember 1998, and I still get the twitches from the memory of having the nasty things fly into my hair and down my shirt and (I kid you not) constantly sweeping my front walk clean of their foul little corpses and corpse-husks. It was no treat, either, additionally spending that summer dodging the locust-killer wasps - three-inch wingspan wasps, slow-flying like vomitous little B-52 bombers, droning around the yard looking for holes in the ground to lay their nasty little eggs in.

Insects. [shudders]
posted by UncleFes at 9:31 AM on June 28, 2002

*shudder* That sounds awful, UncleFes. They're pretty terrifying looking things. And loud!
posted by Marquis at 9:44 AM on June 28, 2002

Isn't it cicadas that leave there "skins" on tree trunks?

UncleFes: June bugs are disgusting too.
posted by internal at 9:47 AM on June 28, 2002

Cicada swarms are really cool, if you like bugs. Cicadas make a noise unlike any other. If you like the sound of crickets on a warm summer's eve, they'll knock you over. Cicadas leave their skins on tree trunks as they molt. they have a pretty strong grip, and will crawl on you, though they're harmless.
posted by dws at 9:59 AM on June 28, 2002

The ones we have around here, at least in my part of Texas, are kind of bright green....sort of pretty, really. However, those nasty husks left when they molt.... nasty. When I was a kid, I would pick the skins off the trees and attach them to my sister's hair as she slept.
posted by bradth27 at 10:09 AM on June 28, 2002

You know what the MOST disgusting thing about june bugs is? Although a close second is that cellophaney buzz-wap they make when they get in the house and fly around the lights, the worst is when the cat gets them. Buzz-wap, buzz-wap, buzz... crunch-crunch-crunch-crunch. Bleh!

will crawl on you, though they're harmless.

Not to my psychological well-being, they're not.

We have the occasional spider in the house, and they are tolerable, since they kill bugs, so nominally spiders are my friends (enemy of my enemy and so forth), but bugs... gah.
posted by UncleFes at 10:20 AM on June 28, 2002

The Chinese resturant next to my brothers old place of employ had several dishes featuring Cicadas, when last they molted here in the queen city.

The ick part was watching the employees collect cicadas off the trees out front. Like lobster tanks, only different.

2004 is when next they show their little ugly faces aroud here again
posted by Mick at 10:39 AM on June 28, 2002

Bugs are very cool.
posted by rushmc at 10:55 AM on June 28, 2002

As a kid, I feared cicadas, but have grown to love their call. Last summer I took my daughter to the farmer's market, where we were fortunate enough to observe one molting on an oak tree.

To me, listening to their call evokes total desolation - a comfortable emptiness in the world. I like to take walks in the country when they hatch and be surrounded by the sound.

It's beautiful.
posted by rocketman at 11:00 AM on June 28, 2002

I loathe and abhor bugs (except spiders and bees), but, like rocketman, I love the cicada's sound because it's so evocative. Such a nostalgic sound...

Thanks for the buggy links! And I love the name TurkeyMustard for some reason, I've been saying it all afternoon!
posted by evanizer at 11:34 AM on June 28, 2002

Its still somewhat controversial as to why cicadas have 13 and 17 year breeding cycles. Certainly this would allow them to evade predators with shorter breeding cycles but the problem with that theory is that there are no predators of cicadas with regular breeding cycles. Birds, for example, breed every 2-3 years.

Last year it was shown that if such a predator existed then prime cycles would evolve naturally. Fair enough, but why do the prime numbers have to be so large? 5, 7 and 11 are prime too. Larger primes would seem to be a bad idea since larger generation spans should hamper their evolutionary/adaptation speed.
posted by vacapinta at 11:54 AM on June 28, 2002

Cicadas are cool because they only seem to be able to fly in a straight line. they were around when I was a kid. you get yourself a paddle-ball paddle, or table tennis for greater challenge, and go out it the back yard and play cicada baseball. A tennis racket is fun too, but its hard to track al the little pieces. Good times... Good times... When you're a little boy those idiot bugs are perfect fodder for all sorts of bug-killin' fun.... pull the wings and the head pops off... oh, and one word: fans

I loved watching everyone freakout at the harmless, noisy critters too. Cicadas are just fun on so many levels.
posted by srw12 at 12:03 PM on June 28, 2002

When I was growing up, I saw a cicada fly right into this kid's open mouth (while he was talking to me). His reaction was probably in the top three of funniest things I saw as a kid. Just thinking about it now has me giggly. :)
posted by stifford at 12:03 PM on June 28, 2002


Well, I'll be having nightmares for a couple YEARS.
posted by UncleFes at 12:19 PM on June 28, 2002

Ok. I did a little more reading and thinking since my last post. If each brood is genetically isolated from the other broods why wouldnt they be distinct species? As it happens, they are identical.

This suggests that there is cross-breeding or some sharing of genetic information across broods. This is really interesting because it suggests that the cicada is, in a sense, evolving along separate "tracks" (i.e. broods) separated by time. Think of the cicada as some sort of super-organism which has "time-sliced" itself in order to foster reproductive success!

This would favor large cycles (as I wondered about above) because then there would be a greater number of separate broods (e.g. 17 broods for a 17-year cycle) and thus more genetically safe (if for example, one brood was devastated this would only account for 1/17th of its genetic investment)

This seems to me to be a whole new type of strategy that I havent read about before (some ideas are here)
posted by vacapinta at 12:54 PM on June 28, 2002

Ever tie a thread around a June bug's leg?

You get an afternoon pet who'll fly in circles until they get tired, then rest on your shoulder. Be careful, though, sometimes, they'll pull their own legs off trying to get away.

We used to catch them in the morning while waiting for the school bus and tie them to our belt loops. The school bus would be filled with a whirling racket, and all the girls would be screaming, "Ewwwwwwwwwwwww!" until the bus driver made us all troop off the bus and unleash our new pets.

It was also fun to put cicada husks in the hair of your favorite fourth-grade sweetie.

I like bugs. 'Cept for camel crickets. *shudder*

OK, so now I've provided the banal counterpoint to vacapinta's really intelligent and thought-provoking post....
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:20 PM on June 28, 2002

The bible, in numerous places, mentions manna. It it's largely believed that manna was indeed Cicadas, either ground into a paste and dried, dipped in honey, roasted, or just plain popped into the gullet.

The Bedouin still eat them and call it Manna. Not that you'll 'McManna" on the menu in any McDonald's in Jerusalem, they were very commonplace in diet in those days. Greeks and Romans liked them pretty well too.

During the exodus, the lost tribe with Moses praised god for delivering manna to them at some point. Meaning that literally tons of them would blow into cliff walls from across the desert. Imagine being waste deep in them, starving, and delirious?
posted by Dean_Paxton at 1:37 PM on June 28, 2002

Make that nightmares for a couple DECADES.

Manna, indeed.
posted by UncleFes at 1:47 PM on June 28, 2002

Fascinating, Dean_Paxton..."manna from heaven," indeed.
posted by rushmc at 2:04 PM on June 28, 2002

Just to freak you out for all eternity, Fes, check out Cochineal insects, whose 'extract' is a common red food coloring...

Ewwwwwwwwwwwwww... Bug juice!
posted by evanizer at 2:11 PM on June 28, 2002

Sorry guys... more useless knowledge from the bowels of my brain.
posted by Dean_Paxton at 2:11 PM on June 28, 2002

fuck cicadas.

my sister used to chase me with them and when i'd hide in the bathroom (the only door with a lock) she'd SHOVE THEM UNDER THE DOOR. AND I COULDN'T GET OUT WITHOUT PASSING THEM.

and the crawling and the creeping and the spindly little legs and the business. i'm shuddering RIGHT NOW.

i'm with unclefes on this one. nasty, nasty bugs.
posted by sugarfish at 3:44 PM on June 28, 2002

Brood XIII. 1973. Illinois. Summer of the Locusts. We kept playing this Steely Dan song:

Tobacco they grow in Peking
In the Year of the Locust
You'll see a sad thing
Even Cathy Berberian knows
There's one roulade she can't sing
Dumb luck my friend
Won't suck me in this time
posted by groundhog at 7:18 PM on June 28, 2002

I got so excited when I saw this post. I knew this discussion would be a mixture of science theory interspersed with childhood memories, and hey, that combo ROCKS.

Anyway, my favorite memory comes from adolescence in the mid-eighties in MD when the swarms of cicadas came out of the ground and we paid my friend five bucks to eat one of the big ones. Not just eat, but chew for a few minutes before swallowing. No one thought he'd do it, but he did.

That kid's a neurosurgeon now. Crazy world.
posted by ben-o at 9:01 PM on June 28, 2002

Ah, I remember the cicada invasion of the late 80s. I was living in Baltimore. Stupidest bugs I'd ever met. Kept flying into me. The Washington Post ran a whole Food Section with recipes.

2004? Can't wait for my children to experience them. Disney World will never have the cache it now does. Reality always trumps the Imagination Machine. Although, those cicadas are so big my kids might think they're puppets. It's a small world afterall.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 4:19 AM on June 29, 2002

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