Entry 228: The Seventeen-Year Itch

There are many creatures on this planet that are of questionable use to the natural world. Humans are at the top of the list.

But what the hell is the deal with the Brood II cicadas?

These alien-looking bugs have been in the news lately because this is going to be a big year image002[1]for them. You see, Brood II are the cicadas that only show up every 17 years…and this is the year!

Brood II cicadas are known for their unique  “mating call.” At least, that’s how biologists refer to it. But to me, a “call” is like, “Sweetheart, can you come up to the bedroom? I have a little surprise for you.” The sounds that cicadas make are really more like “GET UP HERE NOW AND DO ME, YOU LOUSY GOOD-FOR-NOTHING-BUM!”

bikers_1658525c[1]If you happen not to live in a cicada-infested part of the world, let me give you an idea of what goes on. First, these mating calls can reach 100 decibels, which is about the noise level generated by a motorcycle. And there are literally millions of cicadas. So imagine going out onto your deck and hearing the world’s largest gathering of Hell’s Angels, revving their Harleys for maximum effect. Now imagine that each of the bikers is about two inches long with bulging orange eyes and the ability to fly directly into your mouth.

What’s more, cicadas have this tendency to just drop indiscriminately to the ground…or blog_cicadatree[1]onto your head…or, as was the case the first time I met my wife’s parents, into your beer. I’m not sure why they do this; perhaps it’s because there isn’t enough room in the sky for all of them and they have mid-air collisions.

And, let me just say, these things are big. They are ugly. And, when you step on them, which is unavoidable because, and I really cannot emphasize this enough, they are everywhere…they are disgustingly crunchy. And this goes on for 4-6 weeks.

But here’s what I can’t understand. Most creatures have some function. They are either predators that keep down certain populations, or they are food for some other species, or they pollinate things, or they allow parasites to live on them…something.

But what kind of purpose can an animal have if it only appears every 17 years? It’s like a useless relative that only shows up for weddings and bar mitzvahs, gets drunk and rowdy, and then disappears until the next affair.

There’s another kind of cicada that only shows up every 13 years. Biologists think that the 13 and 17 are significant; they suspect the prime numbers make it harder for predators to predict when the cicadas will emerge. I’m not kidding; they really believe that. But that makes no sense. After all, every 13 or 17 years is pretty predictable. If the cicadas are just trying to be unpredictable, they would show up randomly: 13 years, then 17, then 3, then 28 (“Really fooled them that time!”).

Secondly, I barely passed high school biology, but I would think the more likely explanation for the lengthy sabbaticals is that prey which shows up so infrequently isn’t even on the radar of predators; it’s just sort of a nice treat when it’s on the menu. I mean, it’s not possible that there is an animal for which these cicadas are the sole food source, right?  (“Boy am I hungry. I haven’t had a bite to eat since 1996.”)

Evidently, these cicadas spend those unseen years as juveniles, underground somewhere, doing what all kids do: fight each other for food. They have epic battles. They kill each other. The carnage is incredible, and thank goodness for that. Can you imagine how many friggin’ bugs would be droning outside my window if a few of them didn’t suffer horrible childhood deaths?

After 17 years spent just growing up, they emerge, Red Bulls in hand, hormones raging, ready for trouble. You think your teenagers get cabin fever after one rainy day? Try keeping one cooped up underground for 17 years!

mating[1]It’s one big rave out there, every individual in the crowd screaming for a hookup. And then they find their mate, maybe a little drunk, maybe high on Ecstasy, and then the females lay their eggs.

And then they fall into your beer.

See you soon.

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3 Responses to Entry 228: The Seventeen-Year Itch

  1. Penny says:

    Waiting for their return, so far no sighting up here. May I suggest drinking your beer inside or in a closed container that has room for a straw….perhaps the beverage companies will come up with special containers they roll out every 13 & 17 years so people can enjoy their summer picnics.

  2. Pingback: Entry 234: Six-Legged Lunch | The Upsizers

  3. Pingback: Entry 552: Cicadas Can’t Count | The Upsizers

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