17 Year Old Monsters: A Retrospective

This Spring brought with it a visit from some strange subterranean critters: Cicadas. They have been growing under there since I was 22, living their lives in the dark. Since I know not everyone is lucky enough to live where they could stare for hours at this amazing phenomenon, my family took some pictures, which will last longer.

two cicadas on branch

These 17-year-cycle Cicadas are genus Magicicada. I wish I were genus Magicicada. Magicicada sapien. Has a nice ring to it. Obviously, they’re called this because they magically appear every 17 years (some in the genus appear more frequently). But what are they doing down there all that time?

Holes in the ground that Cicadas emerged from.
Holes in the ground that Cicadas emerged from.

I tried asking several Cicadas what they’d been up to, but they just stared at me blankly. I mean BLANKLY. So I asked some people. Most people shrugged and said they were probably sleeping, but some people who seemed to know what they were talking about said they were living in tunnels, eating Xylem sap from tree roots.

After enough time has passed, the Cicada nymphs start tunneling upwards. They emerge into the warmth of late spring, look for something to cling onto, and climb out of their Nymph-stage shell, which was better equipped for the diggin’ life than the flyin’ life. These shells are then discarded, and the adult Cicada gets ready for its 2 month hurrah above ground.

An adult Cicada basks in the Baltimore sun on Iris' toe.
An adult Cicada basks in the Baltimore sun on Iris’ toe.

Yes, adult Cicadas only live about two months once they get up here. In that time, they cut a little slot into the branch of a tree and lay some eggs. When these eggs hatch, the nymphs drop to the ground and start tunneling. I don’t have any pictures of trees damaged by Cicadas, but it certainly seems to me that their relationship with trees is either parasitic or, more likely, symbiotic.

Symbiotic!?! But they kill saplings! And break branches with their egg-laying! And steal sugars from the roots! All true (as far as I know). But I also know that nature works in mysterious ways, and that it is often true that what looks one-sided from a human perspective is complex beyond imagining if we can come to a deeper understanding.

Some find them ugly, bug-eyed nuisances, miniature monsters, plagues. But I have missed them for 17 years, since my first introduction to their strange song and sudden presence. Now, my children are as struck by their sudden absence as I was. We think they’re cute, and can’t wait to see them again.

Name (required)Email (required)Website

Leave a Reply