Tuesday, 15 Jun 2021

Opinion | The Cicadas Are Coming. It’s Not an Invasion. It’s a Miracle.

NASHVILLE — Deep beneath the spring-warmed soil, a great thrumming force is beginning to stir. Trillions strong, these insects have been living in the dark since George W. Bush’s first term as president. Now they are ready for the light. They are climbing out of the darkness, out of their own skins and into the trees. They are here to sing a love song. Their only purpose among the green leaves is love.

Well, it’s not singing so much as vibrating. And not love so much as sex. Their only purpose among us is to mate.

There are more than 3,000 species of cicadas worldwide, and they can be divided into roughly two groups. Annual cicadas surface every summer, much later in the year than the cicadas emerging now. The song of annual cicadas is an undulation, a pulsating chant that rises in waves as one cicada begins and others join in, and join in, and join in before falling off gradually, one after another. The song of annual cicadas is the sound of summer itself.

Periodic cicadas emerge in cycles — every 13 years or every 17 — and they are generally smaller than their annual cousins. Grouped according to their emergence in a particular area, each brood of periodic cicadas is identified by a Roman numeral. Brood X includes three species with synchronized life spans. It is one of the largest and most widespread of the cicada broods.

For the past 17 years, these insects have lived as nymphs deep beneath the soil, drinking sap from tree roots. For the past week, they have been emerging in much of the eastern South — Georgia, East Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia — and they will arrive soon in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. Look for them when the soil eight inches deep reaches a temperature of 64 degrees. (If you’re in Brood X’s range, you can be part of a citizen-science project that tracks their emergence.)

After a year of weather calamities and pandemic shutdowns, people are already muttering about the apocalypse, but this, mercifully, is a natural occurrence, not a biblical plague. Cicadas are not locusts. They don’t even belong to the same order of insects as locusts. Cicadas don’t strip fields of every grain of rice or wheat, as swarming locusts do. Cicadas don’t sting, and they don’t bite. The strawlike appendage they have instead of a mouth works only for inserting into tree bark. Cicadas don’t even hurt the trees. (Not the mature trees, at any rate; saplings should be protected with cheesecloth before the cicadas emerge.)

The life cycle of the cicada is unique among insects. A nymph tunnels up from deep in the soil, climbs onto a tree trunk or a plant stem — or anything else it can reach that offers a bit of vertical clearance — and then commences to shed its exoskeleton as dramatically and beautifully as any butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. The new adult appears white, almost translucent, but its armor hardens and darkens as the hours pass. Its eyes turn red. Its intricate wings unfurl.

And then it takes to the treetops, where the males begin to sing and the females have their choice of suitors. After they mate, the female deposits her eggs into slits she makes in the bark of tender shoots. When the eggs hatch, the nymphs drop to the ground and burrow into the soil, beginning their lives in the dark. The adults live four to six weeks before they, too, fall to the ground, returning to the earth for a new purpose.

Owing to their mind-numbing numbers — up to 1.5 million per acre — periodic cicadas are louder than summer cicadas, less like a chorus and more like a fire hose blasted directly into your ear canal. At the height of the emergence, the sound appears to come from everywhere and nowhere at once, vibrating in the bones of your ears and in the fillings of your teeth. The sound can feel like a form of madness.

The relentless buzzing, the red eyes — perhaps they explain why so many of the headlines about this phenomenon default to negative metaphors. It’s an “invasion,” according to ABC News, an “infestation,” according to CBS.

It’s no such thing.

The most destructive species the earth has ever known likely emerged some 315,000 years ago, and we have not stopped roaming and eating and pillaging for one minute since. Cicadas, by contrast, benefit the ecosystems into which they emerge, a boon to hungry birds and reptiles and a huge range of mammals. Fish eat them when they fall into streams and lakes. After cicadas die, they decompose and feed the very trees that hosted their brief days in the sun.

Nashville is not in Brood X’s range, but I have lived through two emergences of Brood XIX, a periodic cicada on the 13-year schedule, and I’m jealous of all of you whose skies will soon be blurred by wings and whose trees will be filled with song. At a time when wildlife is being threatened by human activity from every side, your baby birds and possums and lizards and snakes and turtles will grow strong, fed on the cicadas’ bounty. Your hawks and owls and foxes will live this year because their prey has become bountiful, too. And you will be surrounded by reminders that the darkest tunnels always bend, in time, toward the light. That resurrection is always, always at hand.

Margaret Renkl is a contributing Opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South.”

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