MAY
2004

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

05-13-04

Latest Retro Band "Sons of the Cicadas"

Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention? Mother Nature Productions is proud to announce a limited duration tour through the eastern United States of that well-known singing group, the "Sons of the Cicadas." Yes, coming soon to the treetops near you will be nature's loudest percussion musicians in their first appearance in 17 years.

This retro band of male songsters will do all of its old favorite renditions, including "Singing for Love in All The Wrong Places," "When I Was Seventeen" and "Honey, I Love Your Big Red Eyes!" Performances will be accompanied by the band's crazy antics. Their patented zooming from tree to tree will be common. There will be wild crashes into humans, windows and cars. And, all for one low price of, well, just for stepping outside!

This is a year when many people get a chance to witness emergence of periodical cicadas. These cicadas are sometimes called 17-year locusts in the United States. That is an incorrect name, based on a misidentification by some of the early European settlers to our shores. Worldwide, the term "locust" is used for long-horned grasshoppers, such as those that caused destruction in biblical times.

Ogden Nash, the poet, knew the difference, because in one of his poems about common names of animals, he wrote, "Locusts aren't locusts, locusts are cicadas." Regardless of what you call them, these insects have the longest life cycle of any insect. They spend 17 years underground in the immature stage, before emerging as adults that will live for no more than three weeks. While underground, they feed on the sap from the roots of trees.

As adults, their life is focused on finding a mate. The song, if you can call it that, is produced by males and is designed to attract the females. Following mating, the females cut a slit in the bark of tree twigs, where they deposit an egg. That activity will cause the twig to die resulting in a batch of dead leaves. The damage generally does not affect the tree, unless it is newly planted.

The periodical cicadas that are emerging this year are called "Brood X" by scientists. The groups are numbered to identify them.  Brood X is the largest group in terms of distribution. It will be found from Illinois to the eastern seaboard.

There are many species of cicadas, and these insects are found around the world. However, the periodical cicada is found only in the eastern United States. Because of the unusually long life cycle of the periodical cicada and the high numbers that show up when they emerge, this insect always attracts a lot of attention.

Such was the case with Ogden Nash. He penned a poem to this insect entitled "Locust-Lovers, Attention!" Nash begins the poem, "My attention has been recently focused, Upon the seventeen year locust." What year was that? Probably 1936. The poem was published in 1938, and Nash spent most of his working life in Baltimore and New York. That locale just happens to have emergences of Brood X, and four cycles ago would have been 1936.

The Hoosier Poet James Whitcomb Riley also includes locusts in his poems. He never mentions cicadas and does talk about grasshoppers, so his use of locust probably is in reference to cicadas. There is no way to know for sure if Riley was writing about periodical cicadas or the so-called annual or dog-day cicadas. However, his description, "the wild whir of the locust" and "The shrilling locust slowly sheathes his dagger-voice" are suggestive of the high-decibel sounds of the periodical cicadas.

Riley surely would have noticed the periodical cicadas. The Greenfield and Indianapolis areas would have had Brood X present during Riley's lifetime in 1868, 1885 and 1919. So, the cicadas that will serenade us this year had great-great-great-great-great grandfathers doing the same thing for James Whitcomb Riley back in 1885. And, they will be singing the same song as their ancestors. Hey, it's hard to beat the golden oldies when it comes to music!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox