Brood II cicadas: Gettin’ buggy again

[At left: My cat, Pip, checking out a camelia blossom. The flowers in my yard are blooming so quickly you can almost hear them opening up. It's explosive. Pent-up energy.]

My colleague Darryl Fears reports that Brood II, another vast assemblage of 17-year cicadas, will be wriggling from the earth in a few weeks in various parts of the mid-Atlantic, with the males singing their mating songs in the treetops and the whole writhing buggy insectile mess demonstrating anew that Nature is fundamentally gross and remarkably single-minded (but there I go again, making excuses for myself).

[Cue up the Darryl Van Horne sermon from The Witches of Eastwick.]

This quote from today’s story is a keeper:

“Predators can eat their fill, and there are still unbelievable numbers of cicadas that escape to mate, lay eggs and die,” Droege said. “Just the dead, rotting bodies alone have a large nutrient impact on the forests and streams in an area.”

Nature is NASTY.

Some years ago, when Brood X showed up, I typed up a cicada story for Style that got a little overly cosmic — whoa, doggie, not every piece needs to be about the meaning of the universe — but it did make a good point about cicada behavior: They don’t really interact with us the way other insects do. Here’s the lede:

Of the many strange and wonderful qualities of cicadas, the most striking is their utter obliviousness.

They’re in their own universe. They do not care about us. They don’t care about the war in Iraq, the prisoner abuse scandal, the presidential race, the federal deficit or the rising price of gas. They don’t even care about the cats and dogs and birds that sometimes turn them into a snack.

They do care about mating. One might envy their ability to pare life down to its essentials. Then again, their mating is rather desultory, inanimate, not exactly the kind of thing where they need to put on helmets and kneepads. Their obliviousness seems to extend even to their partner, and indeed, they face in opposite directions. (But who wouldn’t if forced to mate with an insect?)

It’s a gift, this ability to live so free of worries. Underground, the cicadas are paragons of patience, sucking on roots for years and years and years while doing sophisticated prime-number calculations. It’s a relaxing life, if grubby and dull and lacking in proper exercise. Cicadas are lawn potatoes, and when they emerge from the ground they’re shockingly out of shape. They could be outraced by a slug. As members of the animal kingdom go, these bugs aren’t very wild.

Try to interact with a cicada. It shows no fear. Indeed, it doesn’t seem to see you at all. It has beady red eyes but might as well be blind. If you pick one up it will wriggle its legs and maybe flit its wings, but with no genuine buggy emotion. They don’t know the basic animal trick of fleeing.

You can fling it, and watch it fly away, usually in the direction you’ve thrown it, until finally it slams into a tree. Make sure to throw it wings up, because if you throw it upside down it will drop like a stick. There are seeds that fly better.

There is a temptation to scorn cicadas, what with their narrow, molt-mate-and-die agenda, the one-note song of the males that sounds like someone has left the pod-bay door ajar, and their general adaptive tendency to rely entirely on numbers rather than skill or savvy or strength or any other evolutionary adaptation.

But they teach us something. They remind us that the world isn’t about just us.

 

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · April 9, 2013