Siren Call: Cicadas Are Loud and Ugly but Somehow Still Alluring

    In both images and print, a watercolor artist and self-described bug nerd captures the emergence of 17-year cicadas in all their red-eyed, exoskeleton-dropping, ear-piercing glory

    I’ve always found insects fascinating, like science fiction at your fingertips, only not fiction. Every one of them is a marvel of biological engineering, evolved to master a very specific set of needs in their environmental niche, and able to reproduce in sufficient numbers to perpetuate the design. The diversity of species is staggering, and so are their numbers. It’s really their planet, they outnumber us in raw tonnage, and whichever way the climate turns, insects will adapt to it. They outlasted the dinosaurs, and will most likely outlast us as well.  

    If I could experience the world through an insect’s eyes I’d be hard pressed to pick which one. With as many as 10-million species to choose from, Cicada’s would definitely not be on my list. The 17-year variety, even less so. This species of cicada spends almost it’s entire life underground sucking on roots of trees, like a potato with legs and a pair of tiny pickaxes for hands. 

    It’s like being in the womb until college, if the womb was a hole in the ground and the umbilical cord a maple root. My only hope for them is that they can dream, although I can only imagine what Cicada nymphs would dream about. I’m guessing dirt and perhaps the subtleties of such we would never notice. I can imagine elaborate fantasies about the smell of a spring rain… from six inches under. Maybe they dream of the distant day they get to emerge. 

    So imagine the pent up, spring break-like urgency they have when their moment finally comes. After decades in the dark, some internal alarm clock goes off and the race is on! First however, they must dig their way to the surface with those pickaxes, like chubby little zombies clawing out of a grave, up they come. 

    They’re a pale yellowish grey and not handsome. With four spindly legs that have never walked a step, they clamber to a tree or something vertical and start climbing. It’s as if they’re done with dirt and need to get as far away as they can. Up they go, and during certain years, like this one, they arrive in the millions and millions. And millions. 

    The cicada is defenseless once it leaves the ground, it’s slow and clumsy, and also apparently delicious. Birds, chipmunks, raccoons, skunks, possums, frogs, turtles and snakes all devour them until they’re gorged. The first couple of waves ashore suffer heavy losses, but more and more keep coming. It’s not a particularly elegant survival gimmick, but it’s been working for them longer than we’ve been around. 

    Once the cicadas that haven’t been eaten (yet) crawl a few feet off the ground, they pick axe themselves to a spot and crack open the back of their exoskeleton, right down the middle, like splitting their pants, then slowly summersault out of it. This is the big morph, when the adult climbs out of the shell of its youth and attains its mating attire.

    No butterfly here though. No, the adult cicada is a ghostly albino maggot-like creature with red eyes.  It darkens as it’s wings pump out, and when it’s fully morphed it looks like a cigar butt with badminton rackets for wings. It’s former exoskeleton joins thousands of others, like destroyed and abandoned tanks on the beachfront. With a raspy flutter of its wings, it takes flight!

    Alas the cicada also flies like a cigar butt with wings. Resembling an overweight bumblebee, it makes its way into the canopy of a nearby tree. Once in the tree the males begin to audibly announce their availability to the females. The call of the male cicada is what I imagine tinnitus would sound like if it were a musical instrument. The females respond with a clicking sound, and well, you can figure on the rest.

    It’s the numbers of these singers that create such a summer din. They can be loud. Very loud. The sound of a couple thousand male cicadas can be as loud as a tornado, jet engine or my son blasting music in the car.  

    Fortunately, for us, the adult cicada’s life only lasts about as long as a spring break. They mate, lay eggs and die. It’s a tough racket, but you can’t knock something that’s been working for over a million years.  

    So when the cicadas come calling this summer, do your best to enjoy them, and, if it starts to be too much, remember what the Miami Beach locals know: Soon enough the party will be over and we’ll be able to hear the crickets again. 

    This animation was made with paper, paint and animation cells. It was shot on a traditional animation stand and edited digitally. The sound is an actual recording of Linnaeus’s 17-year Cicada.  

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