The XX Factor

You Say Cicada, I Say Cicada

It’s a big year for the Magicicada cicadas, and thus a somewhat less magical year-or at least a less magical spring-for residents of some parts of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. If you’re planning a wedding in any of those states this month, you might want to consult the handy Cicada Wedding Planner from the extremely informative Cicada Mania website. But for the merely mildly curious, a brief tutorial on the gigantic (relatively speaking), winged, bug-eyed (ok, no surprise there) insects that probably sung you to sleep for one-and only one-year of your youth should suffice and enable to you to amaze your friends and children with the depth of your knowledge.

First, the important question: are these locusts? No. This means both a) the end of the world is not nigh and b) no On the Banks of Plum Creek references, please. Locusts are totally different gigantic winged bug-eyed swarming singing insects. Cicadas are not grasshoppers, they’re, well, cicadas.

The Magicicada are the ones with the funky life cycles, and if you live in the right place long enough, the ones that prompt the best references to “the last time the cicadas came to town.” Eggs hatch into tiny infant cicadas which head underground, where they stay for 13 or 17 years, until they emerge, pretty much all at once, crawl up their tree of choice, shed their exoskeletons (this is where it gets seriously fun for the right kind of kid) and then emerge as full grown cicadas, ready to sing (males only), fly into the hair and food of unsuspecting wedding guests and generally make a nuisance of themselves. Some “brood” of Magicicadas emerges somewhere every year at this time, but this brood inhabits a larger swath of the country than most. (It’s Brood XIX if you’re counting. In Roman.) There’s another kind of cicada (Tibicin) that comes out just about every year in some areas, but there’s really nothing fascinating about that. That’s just another bug.

Are cicadas good for anything? Making other cicadas, primarily, but they’re also a tasty, healthy, environmentally friendly crunchy snack food . Plus, possums and squirrels eat them, so they fit right into the food chain. It’s not clear what possums and squirrels are good for, but you just know there’s something. And you can, if you’re lucky enough to live in an infested area, entertain yourself by looking for the rare blue, white or yellow-eyed cicada. Or you can grab a bottle of wine and a flashlight, head outside and while away a few nighttime hours watching cicadas shed their exoskeletons and inflate their wings while you contemplate life and change. 1998 brought us Monica Lewinsky, Iraq’s refusal to disarm, the first internet boom IPOs and the merger of Chrysler and Mercedes. The first few months of 2011 are presumably fresh in your memory. Time to ask yourself-where will I be in 2024, when these cicadas come again?