As I write , the windows are open and I can hear a continuous droning noise . It is like living in a house near the New Jersey Turnpike and hearing the continuous roar of traffic . It reminds me of the clamor of vuvuzelas played by South African spectators at the Word Soccer games three years ago, though it is not as loud. It is , of course , neither of those things . The noise that assaults my ears is caused by a plague of cicadas which has descended over the north-eastern states after a lapse of seventeen years .
Magicicada ( order Homoptera) to give them their scientific name are not locusts , though many people think they are . They spend most of their lives underground , feeding on fluids from the roots of deciduous trees. Every seventeen years , they emerge in their billions and the males hum in chorus to attract receptive females. The mating season lasts four to six weeks after which the males die . The females cut V- like incisions in deciduous trees and lay their eggs in them before dying. In a matter of weeks , the larvae emerge and drop to the ground where they burrow sometimes as much 12 inches underground to begin another 17 year cycle. The cycle starts at different times in different areas and thus the emergence of the cicadas is staggered different parts of the country.
Cicadas do not harm people or plants though it is difficult to keep this in mind when they descend on your front lawn in their millions . It is not a good idea to use a power tool or lawn mower at such times since they noise confuses them and they may attempt to land on you , thinking you are one of them . Supposedly , they also pee a clear liquid , euphemistically called ” honey dew” , and it is not a good idea to spend time under a tree. Their sheer numbers are so alarming that residents use power washers or lawn leaf blowers to clear their porches.
Cicadas have their uses. For one thing, they aerate the soil. Another plus : they are edible and a good source of protein . Native Americans used to roast them to make a crunchy snack. In Chinese traditional medicine , they are reportedly used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Also, Birds feast upon them and even squirrels have been observed killing and eating them .
Close up , cicadas have some attractive features. Children are among their admirers, being fascinated by their five eyes , three small red ones between the two regular ones. Many adults too look upon them with tolerance , even appreciation . The New York Times reports that David Rothenburg ,a music professor at NJIT , travels around with his clarinet and a some live cicadas with whom he performs ” duets “. One exterminator refuses to kill cicadas and even took out a newspaper advertisement to tell people that cicadas are harmless.
The first time we encountered these cicadas was in 1979. Our then house had a lot of trees on the grounds and we were simply inundated with them . It was impossible to walk out of the house without crunching them underfoot . After they died , I swept the bodies into piles before disposing off them. It was not scary after we got over the initial surprise and revulsion. Our present house has very few deciduous trees around it so there are almost no cicadas on our property . However , there are several groves of trees close by and we can hear the drone of their mating calls quite clearly when the windows are open .
Thinking about these cicadas , which spend almost their entire lives underground before emerging for their brief moment in the sun , I can’t help feeling sorry for them . Of course , my feelings may have something to do the fact that there are none on my property but I think I’d feel the same even otherwise.