Another Perspective

Attack of the Killer Cicadas

Brooding over the sad fate of Brood X.

By 5.19.04

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After weeks of hype, I finally met my first cicada as I walked into my apartment building on Friday afternoon. He was sitting on the concrete steps in the waning May sunlight, twitching one yellow wing in the soft breeze.

They're larger than I expected, I thought as I knelt down to examine the awkward looking insect whose last mass appearance was in 1987. He looked eminently modern, however: No mullet, no spiky hair, no spandex or Day-Glo colored shirts. The cicada turned his beady red eyes to size me up as well, and then took a few quick steps to the right before looking back up at me.

I'm sorry. Did you want to get by? he seemed to say.

As I was standing there contemplating the polite, if ugly, bug before me, a squirrel came tearing across the walkway, grabbed the cicada in his mouth and ran up a tree in a blur of brown.

This wanton cruelty was indirectly my fault. The squirrels in my neighborhood know me as the guy with the pocket full of peanuts. They don't fear me, and I can nearly feed them by hand. On this particular afternoon I had no peanuts and the squirrel took the next best thing, the polite and friendly bug. Being my friend can be difficult sometimes.

NOW, ONLY A FEW DAYS removed from my first encounter, the concrete is littered with cicadas and the empty amber shells they've molted off all over the place. Children from the building I live in are playing a kind of bug hopscotch seeing how many cicadas they can crush at a time. People huff and puff angrily, as if squishing the bugs beneath their heels is more of an inconvenience to them than it is to the cicada.

Anytime a squadron of carousing cicadas takes flight, girls can be heard squealing in terror. A young boy trying to shoo one of the bumbling bugs with a baseball bat accidentally cracked his friend in the nose. At a comedy club in Fairfax this weekend I watched a comedian picking on cicadas get some of the biggest laughs of the night.

Can cicadas be a nuisance? Sure. This is, after all, Brood X, one of the biggest on record. The bugs will probably number in the trillions at the peak of their short season. The most cicada-friendly areas will host approximately 1.5 million bugs per acre.

And the number of plants they eat are outnumbered only by the number of creatures (including humans) that eat them. A recent Reuters story quoted University of Connecticut biologist Christine Simon euphemistically describing the cicadas' lack of street smarts: "We prefer the term 'predator foolhardy' to stupid," she said.

I wonder what you call the Indian guy who had to be rushed to the hospital after having an allergic reaction to the sautéed cicadas he had for dinner?

BUT I KEEP THINKING about that first cicada I met. How sad it is to think that he spent the last 17 years eight or more feet below the ground, sucking on tree roots to survive all in hopes of enjoying two weeks of mating, mating, mating in the sun before shuffling off this mortal coil, only to be crunched his first day above ground.

That's as tragic as having a heart attack walking down the cruise ship gangplank the first day of a long-delayed vacation, never to wiggle your toes in the warm sand of some tropical paradise.

It is worth keeping in mind that there are worse insects out there. Cicadas don't bite or swarm, although they do have a problem flying those big bodies of theirs in a straight line. They are the second longest living insect, and much more pleasant than the first, the termite queen.

Nearly two decades ago the insects before you now hatched from eggs left in twigs and tree branches and dropped to the ground, burrowing deep on the same pure instinct that would last week call it to the surface. In fact, cicadas are some of the most considerate creatures ever to roam this earth. Name one roommate or co-worker you've ever had who stayed out of your hair for 17 years at a stretch. We should welcome Brood X.

Sunday afternoon as I brought my garbage out, I ran into an old black woman who was nervously kicking cicadas off the pavement in front of her. In a near whisper she asked me if I had ever seen anything like these strange insects before, and I repeated roughly my thinking as recorded above to her.

She smiled and said, "Well, I guess they've waited long enough for their time in the sun, haven't they." Walking back from the dumpster I passed her again. She was sitting on the stoop, nudging a cicada with her index finger and cooing, "Yes, you've been waiting a long, long time."

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