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Wednesday, June 04, 2003

Cicadas' love is in the air, under foot, on the trees ...

The bugs' 17-year life cycle has crescendoed in a noisy, crunchy, smelly - but memorable - frenzy.


An adult cicada has about four weeks to fulfill its life's goals: eat; make music; and reproduce. The insects are making one of their memorable - and noisy - emergences this spring.

   This is the Magicicada opera of the insect world, with the steely aria screaming the soundtrack for a drama of birth, sex, murder and death.

    Under the arm of a maple tree, two lovers mate in the crackly remains of their former selves. Another bug, higher on the tree, molts from her shell like a slow-motion ballerina, starting her new but exceedingly short life. A male climbs to the treetop where he drones his metallic wail, pining for love. All around them, thousands, millions even, dance the same dance. Click here for sounds and sights of cicadas.

    For 17 years - their entire lives - they wait for these few weeks, to carry on their purpose, this biological anomaly.

    This is the life of the cicada, and this spring, they're bringing their act to a back yard near you.

Beauties and beasties

    Perhaps we should start with the Bible.

    The masses of cicadas infiltrating back yards around Southwest Virginia are not the crop-destroying locusts of the Old Testament, which God used as his long arm of fury. Nor are they the subject of Bob Dylan's woeful "Day of the Locust" ballad ( And the locust sang, yeah, it gave me a chill, Oh the locust sang such a sweet melody; Oh, the locust sang their high whining trill ).

    No, these are the "periodical" species that come our way after a lethargic 17 years underground. A distant cousin of the grasshopper-like locust, the cicada has many varied life cycles. There are some that emerge annually (called dog-day cicadas), and others that come out every two or four or 13 years, but it is this brood that is buzzing around now that is the biggest, most notorious in the family. Theirs is one of the greatest lifespans of the insect world.

    For some, like self-confessed bug-geek Eric Day, they are a biological treat.

    "As an entomologist, I think they are pretty cool," said Day, manager of Virginia Tech's insect identification lab.

    As a boy, he mistook the screeching mating call for a fire engine, a sound level they may or may not reach this year. The cool, wet weather has kept this year's cicadas quieter than usual, but if temperatures soar, so will the cicada's song. Day is almost hopeful it will.

    Beyond the constant din of their mating call, cicadas can leave behind a wasteland. Their density can reach 1.5 million per acre, and Day has seen emergences that leave sidewalks slippery with cicada goo.

    Dave Jeter, who lives on Roanoke County's Bradshaw Road, say the thousands that burrowed out of the ground near his home are decaying near the shells they molted from.

    "They stink," Jeter said.

    He can't fathom how some people find the crawly things a culinary delicacy (they taste nothing like chicken). But neighborhood dogs scarf up the bugs like they were popcorn.

    "One dog walked up and ate until he got his fill," Jeter said. "He was like a pig, he made a feast of them."

    A couple of hounds aside, biologists suspect predators may have something to do with why the cicadas come out so rarely. No bird or snake or dog can time their eating habits on something that appears only once every 17 years.

Entomology in a bug shell

    The condensed version of the cicada life cycle is as follows: Female cuts slit into tree limb, lays eggs. Eggs hatch, nymphs fall to the ground, burrow into soil. Nymphs attach to tree root, suck nutrients for 17 years ( biologist aren't sure why 17).

    One spring, the days grow longer, the soil warms. Nymphs tunnel to surface, emerge en mass, crawl up nearby trees, plants, fences, whatever.

    Slowly, they molt their shells, that brown exoskeleton hanging on everything. White adults expand wings and body, becoming the familiar 2-inch-long black creature with glassy wings and blood-red eyes.

    Males head for tree tops to find some love - the more partners, the better. Males vibrate their tymbals, creating a sound louder than any other in the insect world. Females swoon, and they pair off and hook up.

    The males repeat the cycle a few times, then, rendered useless, buzz off and die. Females lay hundreds of eggs, then perish.

    The whole above ground cycle lasts less than four weeks. About the only thing they do is molt, make melodies and mate. No wonder they seem so busy.

Slow ticks in time

    For some, the cicadas are like a bookmark in their memory.

    Sue Molumphy can remember the various emergences, back to the days of childhood when she'd chase the bugs through her yard with her siblings.

    "It's existential," said Molumphy, of Roanoke County. "They make you project into the future: 'Where will I be in 17 years when they come back?'"

    J. Loice Parks is much the same. Though he says the bugs are "an ugly beast. ... They look like they've been on a big drunk," with their beady red eyes, he's fascinated by them.

    "I enjoy them, even the racket they make," said Parks, 60, of Martinsville. Though he can't hear birds chirp without his hearing aide, he doesn't need assistance to hear the cicada's scream.

    Parks can remember the four cicada emergences he's seen in his lifetime, back to his boyhood in rural Grayson County, when he'd play with the brown shells suspended on trees.

    "It's something you don't forget," he said. "I'd carry them around on my shoulder pretending they were Jimminy Crickets."

    Parks has scooped up a whole bunch of molted shells to show his grandchildren and great grandchildren, trying to pass his interest on to another generation.

    He can't help but wonder if this will be the last emergence he sees, or if he'll watch them crawl from the ground and sing in the sky one more time, 17 years down the line.

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