THE RELENTLESS CHORUS of cicadas has been the soundtrack to summer in my part of Down Under: so blaringly loud at times we’ve had to shout at each other to be heard over it.
Apparently, breeding conditions were perfect back in 2007 and we’ve been graced with record numbers of cicadas this year. An early, hot summer has also helped.
To me, it’s a happy sound, reminiscent of the long, hot summer days of childhood. One distinct memory of my Sydney suburban childhood is of walking to church for Christmas midnight mass with the cicadas singing as loudly at night as they did during the day. In our fanciful minds, we thought they were rejoicing along with us.
My brothers used to climb trees to catch cicadas and keep them in boxes—with strict parental instructions to release them back to the trees at the end of the day (which they did).
The different varieties were prized and even traded: green grocer, cherry nose, floury baker, black prince, yellow Monday, double drummer. The collecting of cicadas seemed more a boy thing than a girl thing, though we were all both fascinated and squeamish when those poor captive creatures proceeded to do what all the frantic singing was about and mated.
According to the wonderfully titled article in The Sydney Morning Herald, Suicide song: cicada sex racket risks death for chance at love: “Cicadas are the suicidal lovers of the insect world, risking death for several weeks of singing and sex.”
Only male cicadas sing and they do so to attract a mate—the louder and more vigorously he sings, the more he advertises himself as a worthy, virile mate for a female. The downside of this blatant self-promotion is he also attracts predators such as birds and wasps that like to snack on cicadas.
This season, apparently, there are so many cicadas around that their predators are sick of them. The birds are weary of cicada on the menu—leaving those males free to sing and attract females and start the cycle all over again. (Seems to me, the birds then head for my fruit trees for dessert.)
After she’s chosen a mate, the female cicada lays her eggs in the bark of a tree. When the nymphs hatch they drop to the ground where they burrow deep and stay there for a number of years. They emerge and shed their skins, leaving a dry, brown endoskeleton.
Another enduring childhood memory is of watching in awe as a cicada emerged from its humble brown skin as a magnificent greengrocer, its gauzy, emerald-veined wings crumpled at first and then drying in the sun before it flew away.
This year I’ve enjoyed the letters pages of our daily newspapers as excited readers report sightings of their various favorites. I suspect they, too, were enjoying the same nostalgic blast from childhoods when the long Aussie summer school holidays were spent roaming suburban streets and bush-land without parental supervision. The soundtrack to this freedom? The relentless sound of cicadas.
There’s one thing that puzzles me about that sound. I’m no entomologist, and wonder at the way these insects communicate. One moment the volume of their song is full blast then, at the seeming snap of some cicalian finger, they’re silent. All at once. Thousands of them. How does that happen?
I’ll be sad when the season ends and the sound of cicadas fades into the memory of another summer. I just hope enough of them have successfully mated, so I have another bumper cicada summer to look forward to in seven or so years time.
Kandy Shepherd writes fun, feel-good fiction.
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