Birth, death, romance, sex and an awful sound: up close with cicadas
Published Wednesday, June 5, 2013 2:55AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, June 6, 2013 6:38AM EDT
WASHINGTON -- It’s an amazing cycle of life: every 17 years a certain type of cicada crawls up from the earth to sing, mate and die in a few short weeks. Crazy, huh?
No wonder they make a lot of noise when they do it. Swarms of these critters are invading the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, up from North Carolina and into New York. And in Virginia, where we met up with the so called ‘bug guy,’ Professor Michael Raupp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland who couldn’t say enough about the largest insect emergence on this planet.
“How could you not love this? It’s got everything. It’s a blockbuster show,” Raupp told us. “It’s got birth, death, romance, it’s got sex; it doesn’t get any better than this and they’re everywhere!”
He’s right. We saw them dangling off leaves, on tree trunks, on the ground. When I was doing my on-camera stand up, they crawled on my shoulder, got into my hair … Kind of creepy and I still feel itchy.
And the noise! Like a loud whirring -- that’s the male mating call. It can hit 90 decibels -- about as loud as a rock concert, or a jet engine going by.
Now this may seem a bit pornographic, but this particular species of cicada, called Brood Two (kind of sounds like a bad Vincent Price horror movie) has one purpose…to get lucky.
These love-sick Lotharios of Brood II fly to the treetops and gather in swarms, crying out for love.
And if a female likes the tune, she clicks her wings … and well the rest, shall we say, will remain behind closed doors.
But the bug guy says you can’t really blame this bawdy brood. Yes, it’s “Sex, wild sex in the tree tops,” Raupp admits.
“But c’mon -- they’re teenagers, they’ve been underground living a dismal life for 17 years sucking on plant sap in the dark. So no wonder they want to get up in the sunshine and sing their hearts out and have a little romance … After all, it’s going to be over in a few weeks, so it’s their day.”
Is it ever! Raupp estimates about “30 billion, perhaps a trillion” are out and about enjoying a brief-but-sexy bug’s life. And once they mate, both females and males die soon after the females lay their eggs.
While the noise is a nuisance, one woman I spoke to in a residential area of Lorton, Va., complained they were all over her lawn furniture, on the ground, on rocks and bushes.
Cicadas are not harmful, they don’t bite and they make for a crunchy treat -- birds and dogs love them. And, yes, even the odd human has made a meal of them.
Raupp says he’s eaten a few in his time, explaining they taste like crab or shrimp and suggesting it pairs well with a glass of chardonnay.
To each their own, I suppose.
But perhaps what is so amazing about this insect invasion is its very survival. Billions of cicadas emerging all at once simply overwhelm their predators. While many cicadas won’t make it, Raupp says it’s like the Russian infantry strategy.
“You just keep throwing soldiers at the enemy until the enemy is overwhelmed and there’s still enough to survive,” he said.
And they will emerge once again, in another 17 years.