A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful
full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us
that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring
is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.
If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.
— Rachel Carson
Don: First, I just want to tell you how honored and excited we are that you are coming to visit again!
Cicada Spirit (Magicicada spp.): Thanks! People don’t often look forward to our visit!
Don: So, what have you been doing for these last seventeen years?
Cicada Spirit (Magicicada spp.): For seventeen years we have been living underground in our nymph stages, growing, molting, and sucking juices from tree and plant roots. As sucking insects, we like deciduous trees like oak, maple, apple, hickory, and various nut trees. We stay away from evergreens. And, I have visions of my parents climbing black round things along the curbs.
Elizabeth: Why do you stay away from evergreens?
Cicada Spirit (Magicicada spp.): Great question Elizabeth! We simply don’t like their juice.
Don: I remember holding cicadas in my hands, and then in the hands of my own children, showing them how cicadas are peaceful insects, not biting, stinging, or giving off toxic chemicals. Can you describe what happens next in more detail?
Cicada Spirit (Magicicada spp.): Sure. In the spring of our seventeenth year, we build mud tubes that project three to five inches above the soil, to escape wet and saturated soil, and climb out into the air.
Don: Wow! I still have two of these hardened tunnels from 1987 on my desk! This is great information!
Cicada Spirit (Magicicada spp.): In what you call mid to late May, we will appear around sunset. My male cicada friends will slightly precede my female cicada friends, climbing to the nearest tree, vegetation, or vertical surface. During the night our nymphal skins split along the midline, and we, as adults, emerge from them. We are black, have reddish-orange eyes and legs, and have clear wings with orange veins that we hold roof-like over our bodies.
Al: Oh! I’ve seen your skins on my play set in my backyard! My mom says they are called exoskeletons. I just think they are way cool!
Don: You know, when cicadas came in 1987 to visit here in Maryland, entomologists called you periodical cicadas, and they said your Brood X is the most important, geographically and numerically, ensuring that your great numbers would survive to reproduce.
Cicada Spirit (Magicicada spp.): Actually, our survival is not certain. You see, we only live here on the East Coast, and are extremely vulnerable to many things humans are doing. The sweeping destruction of wooded lots and lawn care treatments has hurt our numbers. And the construction of large parking lots practically entombs us under the pavement.
Sarah: What does ”in tooms” mean?
Don: That’s a good question Sarah. Let’s ask Cicada Spirit.
Cicada Spirit (Magicicada spp.): Thank you for asking Sarah and for wanted to better understand what happens to us. Entomb means to bury or cover forever.
Sarah: oh. That is very sad.
Don: Yes it is. People often consider your existence as an annoyance. But your life cycle is so interesting. So, what do cicadas do next?
Cicada Spirit (Magicicada spp.): Thanks. I feel proud to be so well researched! Male cicadas form chorusing centers of great aggregations. Remember, we have been waiting seventeen years to sing (you call it buzzing). Our all-male chorus peaks around 10:00 AM. We are always very punctual, not wanting to disappoint the females that we are singing to. It is our courtship mating song. In trees, we synchronize our singing, which is loud enough to deter predators, mostly birds.
Elizabeth: I can sing. Mommy says I sound as good as Patsy Kline, whoever that is.
Cicada Spirit (Magicicada spp.): That means you are a very good singer. Perhaps you can sing to us sometime when you hear us singing in the morning.
Don: So, only the male cicadas buzz...I mean sing? How?
CicadaSpirit (Magicicada spp.): Male cicadas sing by vibrating membranes on the undersides of our first abdominal segments.
Don: Seems like that would tickle! What do female cicadas do?
Cicada Spirit (Magicicada spp.): Well, since the male digestive tract is rudimentary (not developed), only female cicadas feed on woody plants during the day, while we joyfully melodize, and then rest. About two weeks after emergence, and after mating, females begin oviposition. The females use their blade-like ovipositor (some people think this is a stinger!) to make elongated openings in new growth sections of tree branches, usually depositing 20 - 30 eggs in each opening. Each female lays approximately 600 eggs!
Al: 600 eggs? Holy cow.! My dad eats eggs in the morning, but he never eats 600. That’s a lot.
Cicada Spirit (Magicicada spp.): 600 eggs are a lot, but our eggs are not for eating.
Don: Seems like each of you is very busy. It must be very satisfying to see everything work out just right. What happens next?
Cicada Spirit (Magicicada spp): Eggs hatch 6 - 10 weeks after oviposition, whereupon the tiny, ant-like cicada nymphs quickly drop from the twigs and burrow two to eighteen inches to our underground habitat, to roots where we establish ourselves for feeding.
Don: For another seventeen years! Amazing! Your natural clock remains a mystery to human scientists, because your lengthy nymphal stage is unparalleled within the animal kingdom.
Cicada Spirit (Magicicada spp): Thank you so much for this chance to talk about ourselves. We do feel like an important part of the natural environment. I am glad your children held us and got to understand cicadas. Now they can teach their children about our magic!
Children: We love you Cicada. We promise to do our best to help you so you don’t become in toomed.
Cicada Spirit (Magicicada spp): We love you too and hope to see you very soon!
Don: You are welcome! And yes, both the children and I will do everything we can to ensure the safety and longevity of your species for many more years to come.
Let me share this with you before we stop talking. There is a line, and an intriguing tune from a song in the musical Cats that goes:
"Oh well, there never ever was there ever a cat so clever as magical Mr. Mistoffelees!"
From what I have gained from our special conversation today, I would change that musical line to:
Oh well, there never ever was there ever a cicada so clever as magical Magicicada!
In the Cicada Spirit Conversation the hope is to help both children and adults build an understanding of and an appreciation for these marvelous insects. To understand them -- not for their labels, fables and fears, but as an intrinsic part of themselves.
By better understanding themselves in relation to their environment, children will better understand their place in it.