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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Jun 12, 2014

evelynevandersande_mugWith these first warm days of early summer, cicadas have started their loud song, and suddenly people wonder where this noise is coming from.

California has about 65 species of cicadas. They are not locusts; they are more closely related to leafhoppers and spittlebugs, and we have them every year. They emerge from their nymph stage underground when the weather gets warm, and the song starts loud, very loud, to attract a mate.

There are cicadas all over the world, and I was intrigued to find the different legends and superstitions this little insect has fostered in many countries.

In America, if you hear the mariachi song, “La Cigarra” (which translates to “The Cicada”), it tells you about the romantic life of a creature singing until the day of its death.

In France, the word cigalle brings a smile to every face; it is good luck if one comes in your house, and it brings visions of warm summer months and leisurely outdoor evenings. The cicada is the symbol of friendly insouciance since Aesop’s fable, and Jean de la Fontaine tells the story again in “The Cicada and the Ant.” The cicada spends the whole summer singing, while the ant works the entire time collecting food for the cold weather. When winter arrives, the cicada has nothing to eat…

cicada8In China, the multiple sheddings of the cicada captured their imagination, and the phrase “to shed off the golden cicada skin” indicates a technique to escape danger, using decoys to fool your enemy. It can also imply going through different stages of life and changes until you become the perfect person you are meant to be.

In Japan, the cicada is really the symbol of the summer, and many songs and haiku poems have been written about this little insect. It is also a symbol of reincarnation or evanescence because the cicada comes from the ground, sings the whole summer to attract a mate, and goes under the ground again.

In Java, the farmers rely on the timing of the cicadas. When the song of the cicadas is heard, they start planting their dry crops because they know for sure the dry season has started and they cannot rely on rain – so no more rice planting at that time.

In Greece, the music symbol is a cicada sitting on a harp, and in the Greek myth, Tithonus was turned into a cicada by Zeus. He was granted immortality that way.

cicada6As you can see, cicadas are loved all over the world – in more ways than one, because they are also a delicacy in many countries. They are eaten in China, Burma, Latin America and the Congo; the females are the first choice, as they are a little bit meatier.

In 2011, Sparky’s in Columbia, Mo., made a whole batch of ice cream with cicadas in it – but only one batch, because the public health department was not amused.

The name “cicada” means tree cricket. There is not a real English name for it; it is derived from Latin.

Cicadas are noisy, and if you try to sleep on a warm summer night, they can be annoying.

How do they make that that noise? They do not rub body parts against each other like crickets do. They have tymbals on the sides of the abdomen. They contract the tymbal muscles, and that makes a clicking sound. When they relax the muscle, another clicking sound is produced. Because the abdomen is hollow, it amplifies the sound. Also, they have chambers derived from the trachea that amplify the sound. The whole body seems to be designed to make the loudest sound possible.

cicada5Cicadas “sing” the loudest during the hottest part of the day, and only males make those sounds, because it is done to attract a female. Both sexes have tympana, which are like our ears, but only the males can block them while they are doing their singing.

You have to admit that nature is pretty well organized.

The female, of course, has to listen to the male call. She will need to respond in order to be fertilized and cannot block her ears.

The song of the cicada is among the loudest of all insect-produced sounds, and different species have different mating songs. They also have a broken and erratic distress call, which is used if the insect is attacked. Some species have a softer and gentler courtship song when the female has approached the male.

After mating, the female deposits several hundred eggs under the bark of a little branch. When the eggs hatch, the nymphs drop to the ground and burrow into the soil to feed on roots. An individual might remain underground for two or three years, but we have cicadas emerging every year. The nymphs crawl to the surface in the late spring and transform into adults after a molting period.

Summertime is here: hot weather during the day and warm evenings and nights. The song of the cicadas will be with you during all these months until the weather cools off in October. Enjoy this sign of summertime – and do your best to consider this a musical accompaniment as you try to get some sleep.

 

Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 28 years. She lives in Newhall.

 

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Comment On This Story
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7 Comments

  1. Melissa says:

    Great info, thanks.

  2. Megan Happ Megan Happ says:

    Jeffrey totally didn’t know we had these here and thought that weird sound was something else.

  3. First warm days?
    We have no Spring, warm/blistering starts in March.

  4. First warm days?
    We have no Spring, warm/blistering starts in March.

  5. First warm days?
    We have no Spring, warm/blistering starts in March.

  6. Debbie Ortiz Debbie Ortiz says:

    I know what they r but didnt know we had them. Interesting.

  7. Debbie Ortiz Debbie Ortiz says:

    I know what they r but didnt know we had them. Interesting.

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