*Some people dismiss these cicada brood announcements with”They say that every year.” Folks, hear me now and believe me later: Brood X is a badger with a battle axe compared to the other broods.
I was 8 when Brood X emerged in 1987.
Just as school was ending that year, the notorious Brood X of 17-year cicadas boiled out of the ground surrounding my Indiana home. I can’t use the word “arrive” since the larvae had been there before I was born (There is real horror in realizing they didn’t arrive there, but had been buried there for 17 years, nine years before I had been born. Waiting).
Immediately after crawling into the sunlight, these pale pink-brown things scurried away for the safety of shadows. The armor of their exoskeletons—flimsy protection that it is—needed time to harden. Until then, they were easy pickings for almost everything that walked, crawled, flew, or slithered. Hoosier beasts gorged themselves.
Of all the categorized broods of periodical cicadas, Brood X (meaning Brood “Ten”) is the largest, both in territory and concentration. Every 17 years these red-eyed, orange-winged creatures pop out of the earth and plague 15 states in the Midwest and Eastern United States. Brood X has been traced back to the early 1700s, when a Philadelphia clergyman recorded their sudden “arrival.” Brood X’s period of hibernation and emergence are so regular that the USDA map below, showing Brood X’s locations in 1919, is still accurate a century later.
They collected in the cracks under our porch, in the basement window wells, in our house. We swept them outside into the sun day after day, our mouths tight with disgust. I had watched our cat Wee-Wee chase the cicadas again and again. That friendly Calico would bat them around a few minutes, then pluck off their heads with feline ease. Crunch. Crunch. Meow.
After a few days, I couldn’t watch Wee-Wee chow down anymore, because my mind kept imagining chewing on them myself: I imagined their squirming weight on my tongue, and a horrid buzz as it twisted to escape. Crunch. The bitter ichor of its insides would squirt into my mouth like a meaty Fruit Gusher.
Shiver. Enough of that. Yuck.
As a species, 17-year-cicadas don’t survive by intelligence or speed or camouflage. Cicadas are clumsy creatures, flying like a drunk Tinkerbell. They survive by surplus, a species-survival adaptation called “predator satiation.” Millions of them fill the bellies of every interested predator, but millions more survive. It’s a deranged twist on “safety in numbers.” The miniseries Planet Earth featured a wonderful clip of the periodical cicadas’ above-ground lifecycle, included below.
A week after emerging from the warm summer soil, they cast a last molted layer on the ground. Once again, we swept this off the porch into the sunlight. Those cicada molting shells are as thin and crispy as starched taffeta.
The air all around is alive with these clumsy flyers, who don’t land on targets as much as throw themselves down on them. Nine times out of ten, the trip and slip. Their twig legs churn the air above their bellies. Absent is the grace of butterflies or the skill of wasps. Cicadas fly like their wings are rented.
Then they start to sing.
That summer, I had thought accidentally popping their newborn bug bodies under my Reeboks was bad. Then I decided that was nothing next to the crispy, wispy piles of cicada molt piling up around my yard. THEN I decided neither of those was as bad as endlessly watching animals chase, chew, and swallow cicadas like crunchy cocktail wienies.
Now I know those were a weak overture to the cicada song (okay, scream). In the dense, second-growth woods where I grew up, MILLIONS of them filled the white oaks, birches, and maples to accomplish their single purpose in life: mating. For male cicadas, this song is the only method of attracting a receptive female. In that summer of 1987, their 17-year life climaxed in weeks of an atonal insect chorus.
If that description sounds respectful to the cicada, I apologize. Cicada song is concentrated torture. It’s a high colonic through the ear. It’s like brushing my teeth with barbed wire. It’s a cocktail made of Liquid Drano and harp seal tears. It’s NOT a good thing, if you get my drift. Just wanted to make that clear.
Some etymologists insist cicadas only sing during the day and occasionally at night. I say that’s a steamy mug of cat poo. The noise never ended. Day. Night. Dawn. Dusk. It didn’t matter. Their “song” wasn’t a song at all, but an endless, atonal drone. Individually, it starts out as a high-pitched rattle that picks up speed and volume, produced by a thin membrane beneath their wings called tymbals. To “sing”, the cicadas vibrate the tymbals like drumheads and then use the volume of their tubby bodies as an organic megaphone. The volume of the cicada’s tymbals has been measured as high as 106 decibels. It wasn’t a song. It was an insect’s horny, mindless bellow.
To this day, I still remember sleepless nights with my bedroom windows open, in that no man’s land between open windows and air conditioning. Too hot to leave the window closed. Too hot to shove my head between pillows to muffle the song. It wouldn’t work anyway. The cicada’s scream had a way of following you. Their frantic whine blasted from every tree on the property, including the white oak four feet from my window. For the rest of my life, I will associate the cicada scream with an almost claustrophobic anxiety.
Weeks passed like this. Flopping, flying cicadas and the drone during the day. Frustrating insomnia at night. Even closing the windows and turning on the AC only helped marginally. Anderson windows might be celebrated for their double-paned efficiency, but no pricey panes kept out the cicadas. Worst of all was when I’d finally start slipping into fitful sleep again, only to be jerked awake as one of those bastards barreled into my aluminum window screens.
Like most terrible things, they eventually died off. Although I never became comfortable around their cry, I grew to tolerate it, the way a person can marginally tolerate a terrible toothache. I remember the moment clearly, stepping out onto our porch, kicking aside some crumbling cicada molts and realizing I heard birds, leaves rustling and little else. Eight-year-old me slumped with relief.
Folks, it all starts again this summer. Brood X is coming back this summer, most likely starting in May. If nothing I described sounds familiar, you needn’t worry. It will by the end of the summer. But there is hope…and hope’s got a big ol’ stinger!
Meet the Cicada Killer.
No, seriously, that’s its name: THE EASTERN CICADA KILLER. Where humans see a red-eyed, randy insect with a terrible singing voice, the cicada killer sees a flame-broiled Whopper. Despite their ferocious appearance, the cicada killer—a species of digger wasp—is not interested in human beings. Not only that, but this wasp’s even, almost docile temperament means you really have to do something stupid to become a target. Like tickling its legs. Or flicking its thorax.
Sometimes called the cicada hawk or the sand hornet, the cicada killer’s body is a massive two inches long, twice as large as most large wasps. Its colors are similar to baldfaced hornets, but the cicada killer has a predominately black body and is much larger. Only the European hornet, which can reach 1.5 inches, can be confused with the cicada killer.
As fearsome as it seems, people stung by the cicada killer say its more a pinprick than a sting*. Only the female has a stinger. If defending the nest or itself, a male cicada killer might poke a target with one of the sharp barbs on its body or simply bite them. In either case, biting, poking, or stinging is a rare and extreme reaction. When humans are near, a cicada killer is much more likely to fly away.
*If you’re allergic to wasp or bee stings, then all bets are off. Stay away from the cicada killer.
But Why is It Called the Cicada Killer?
The story changes if you’re a cicada. In that case, the cicada killer turns into an insect unsurpassed in cruelty. Female cicada killers often share burrows, which can be almost two feet deep. Spacious chambers line the burrow’s sides, each awaiting one of the female’s eggs. Then the intimidating wasp hunts.
It’s not hard to find cicadas, considering how loud, clumsy, and large they are. A wasp can easily outrun or outmaneuver those insectal oafs. The cicada killer descends on plump insect and kkk plunges its stinger home. Only its venom doesn’t kill the cicada or even hurt it. Instead, it paralyzes the 17-year-old creature. The hardest part of a cicada killer’s life is hauling the heavy body of a cicada back to its burrow, a task that takes considerable time and effort.
Buried Alive, Eaten Alive
Once it reaches the burrow, it pushes the paralyzed but still living cicada in one of the chambers. It then turns its long body to deposit an egg If the egg is a male (a woman knows), the chamber has only one cicada, but if it’s to be female, then a mommy cicada killer might put up to three inside.
After the egg is secure, the mommy seals the chamber tightly with dirt or sand. It then flies away to find another cicada. By the time the task is completed, a cicada killer might have laid 10 or 12 eggs in its burrow. It spends the remaining warm weeks feeding, tidying up its burrow, and safeguarding its young, which it will never see. But, more likely than not, the mommy can hear them.
Two days after being laid, the cicada killer grubs hatch. Pale and twisting in the dark chamber, their first instinct is to feed. And its food, buried alive in the pitch black chamber alongside the large grub, is the cicada. The living meal’s body is paralyzed (but can still feel) and it is helpless as the grub turns on it…and feeds.
Cicada Killers Don’t Winter
Cicadas might be a pesky, even maddening insect, even I admit that’s a damn cold way to die. Although an adult cicada killer feeds on nectar, during its lifetime, it might wipe out a dozen cicadas. Many gardeners encourage the presence of cicada killers, although they are also careful to monitor areas with loose or sandy soil to make sure the cicada killer population doesn’t explode.
In the Eastern United States, when the colder air of autumn replaces the heat of summer, adult cicada killers die off. Their eggs remain secure in burrows, satiated with food, and wrapped in a dense cocoon to protect it in inclement weather.
When the next summer comes, so does one of the many cicada broods, and so does the cool but cruel cicada killer.
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