“We’ll Be Back in 2004!”
THERE were crushed bodies everywhere. Casualties were crawling around as best they could. Those that were hale and hearty were up in the trees—by the thousands. But they too were in the last phase of their life span. They were the 1987 generation of cicadas.
The periodical cicada is a flying insect that makes its appearance in the eastern United States once every 17 years. Different broods pop up in different years, although on the same 17-year cycle. We were watching what the scientists call brood number ten. Its cousins in other regions operate on a shorter life cycle from egg to its final, mating, adult stage. According to one source, there are over 1,500 species of cicadas.
The Methuselah of the Insect World
They last appeared in 1970—when U.S. forces were still fighting in Vietnam, the civil war in Nigeria had just ended, Salvador Allende was about to become president of Chile, and former French president Charles de Gaulle died. Ever since then, the cicadas had been lying low.
This extraordinary creature, anywhere from one to two inches long, has a brownish black head and body and diaphanous wings. It has two red eyes that are really compound eyes, with three simple eyes in between.
Where we stayed in Baltimore, Maryland, they were everywhere—on the bushes, in the trees, on the fence and doors. Out in the garden, we had to walk carefully. They settled just as readily on my shirt or my wife’s blouse—much to her consternation! But don’t worry. They are harmless. They don’t bite or sting.
The ones we were watching had already lived a full life before ever appearing around our friend’s apple tree. They start life as eggs laid in slits cut by the female in the branches and twigs of trees and bushes. These eggs then become tiny nymphs that fall to the ground and burrow their way down to a root, usually about two feet down. There they start their 17-year wait—not hibernating but sucking on the sap of the plant. And down there under the ground, they go through five different molts, or stages of change, as they slowly attain maturity. Theirs is the longest insect life cycle known to man. They are the Methuselahs of insectdom!
“An Amazing Demonstration of Biological Complexity”
Then comes the step that baffles scientists—what triggers their exit from below exactly on time? One biologist stated: “It’s an amazing demonstration of biological complexity.” I could not help but think how it demonstrates the diversity and intricacy of the Creator’s handiwork.—Romans 1:19, 20.
Scientists speculate that hormones perhaps play a role. Anyway, in Maryland it happened this year in the months of May and June. Around the base of the tree trunk in our friend’s backyard, hundreds of little tunnel openings began to appear, some in the form of a chimney. Out staggered the cicadas in their penultimate form—pale brown, wingless insects about an inch long. Now what do they do? We watched some as they laboriously headed up the tree trunk to pick out anchorages for their final metamorphosis.
There they wait briefly, and then the miracle occurs. The cicada breaks open its own back casing and starts emerging, new head and shoulders first, revealing what appears to be an albino cicada. Then, within hours it fills with color. It is no longer a pale brown, earthbound insect—now it can fly. The tree was already covered with thousands of their empty shells. And the cicadas were everywhere around us, flitting about from twig to twig and leaf to leaf.
Insect Noise Champions
In the heat of the day, we didn’t just see them—we heard them! Multitudes of males were vibrating their drumlike abdominal tymbals at anywhere from 120 to 600 vibrations per second. We caught one cicada in the house, and it showed its annoyance by a strange rasping, clicking sound. However, the sound of thousands of them in unison seemed like that of wind howling through a distant tunnel. In fact, the cicada is considered the noise champion of the insect world.
Fortunately, the female is silent, which led one ancient Greek wag to write: “Happy are cicadas’ lives, for they all have silent wives.” But there was one consolation—at nighttime the males all piped down and let the neighbors sleep.
But we were witnessing the beginning of the end of their cycle. In the hot, humid atmosphere of late May and June they were mating. The females were getting ready to lay their eggs. Soon the adults would be ending their three weeks of life above ground by dying. Some weeks later, the eggs would hatch as tiny nymphs that would fall to the ground and start burrowing their way to the roots and the sap of the trees. But they would leave behind them an implicit message: “We’ll be back in 2004!”—By Awake! staff writer.
[Pictures on page 25]
Cicadas emerge from holes about half an inch in diameter
Cicada emerging from its husk
White cicada freshly emerged from its husk
Mature cicada waiting to mate