That Nature Show: The Song of the Cicadas

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This column, That Nature Show, is about the nature right under your nose: in our backyards, playgrounds and parks! Stop and look around, you’ll be amazed at what surrounds you.

The soundtrack of late summer is the call of the cicada. It is such a bittersweet sound, signaling Back-to-School shopping and the end of seemingly endless days dockside or pool side sipping drinks served in coconuts in which umbrellas have been placed by men in shorts. Oh, sadness.

Late summer is the season of voluptuous anxiety. When the days are still warm, and the apples still-ripening on the apple trees, but the cicadas cry like little buggy sentinels for us to make plans for whose house we’re going for Thanksgiving.

Each individual male tries to call louder than the next in order to convince females to chose them for mating,” says the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. The cacophony you hear in the trees that starts with an ardent soloist and ends with a crescendo chorus of sound is male cicadas on the make.  Wink, wink. The Smithsonian calls it a “spectacular din.” I told Husband, “I wish you’d sing to me like that.” 

He replied, “Honey, I lack tymbals.” He is a logic-minded ISTJ high school science teacher.

Tymbals are structures that insects use to make sound. They are like drums. Specifically they are “stiff-ribbed cuticular membranes.” The tymbal muscles bang against the tymbal like Jon Bonham playing for Led Zeppelin.

Of the over 2,5000 species of cicadas, those with with especially fast music muscles are the 17-Year Cicadas, which erupt en masse every 17 years, to the joy of entomologists (the scientists who study insects) and to the dismay of drivers. They can really gum up your windshield.

Cicadas emerge from the ground flightless and then molt into their winged adult form. Here’s a coloring page of their life cycle you can print out for your kids.

Here’s a fun fact to think about if you are lucky enough to find a cicada’s shell on the bark of a tree. These shells were ground up for use in ancient Chinese medicine. Before you get skeeved out, wonder if its really really all that different from shrimp and crab shells ground up and used in the making of glucoasmine, the popular arthritis supplement. I have tried that.  If ground up cicadas shells would treat arthritis pain, I would be the first one out there foraging for them, without a second thought, and the noise of them singing that I find sweet would be sweeter still.

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