Must we learn to love cicadas?

Jacob Sullum
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Posted: May 21, 2004 12:00 AM

If life gives you cicadas, make cicada pie. That seems to be the general attitude of the journalists and scientists chronicling the creepy, crawly, crunchy onslaught of the Brood X periodical cicada. This cheery attitude may be the only thing more annoying than the cicadas themselves.
 
It would be bad enough if enthusiasm for the insect invasion were limited to photo swapping, Brood X mugs and T-shirts, and cicada recipes. But in addition to those manifestations of cicadamania, we've got high-minded lectures on the deeper meaning of the bugs festooning our homes, sidewalks, shrubs and trees.

 The New York Times informs us that "the periodic nature of the cicadas, the way they come at about the span of a person's youth, makes them irresistible emotional mnemonics." To support this claim, the paper quotes Robert J. Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, who says, "Cicadas are the sound of summer, of the year when you were young. . . . It's the closest thing to a time machine you can get outside science fiction."

 Yet as I vacuum hundreds of cicada husks, squashed cicada corpses and wriggling, half-dead cicadas off our house, our porch, our walkway, our deck and our patio every morning, I am not instantly transported to my first year out of college, when love was new and dreams were vivid. My feeling is not so much wistfulness as disgust.

 And futility. I know that even if I suck up cicadas until they start flying back out of the hose, there will be more the next day, and the next. But if I let them accumulate, they will form a crunchy carpet all around the ahouse, they'll be waiting to drop on our heads as we open the door, and the stench of rotting cicadas will be even stronger.

 So the time machine metaphor doesn't quite ring true to me. Still, Professor Thompson is right to suggest there is something science fictional about the cicadas. It's the sound the male cicadas make by rubbing on their washboard bellies in an effort to attract a mate.

 "Just think of it as a giant love song," advises one expert consulted by the Times. "It's kind of a Zen sound," another claims. Personally, I find the noise vaguely menacing, perhaps because it sounds like phaser fire on "Star Trek."

 Although the cicadas are not really attacking me with futuristic energy-beam weapons, they are peeing on me. According to the Times, it's just "a harmless mist of cicada urine," but it still seems rude.

 We have about 20 trees in our yard, all of them fairly old, so there were lots of places for female cicadas to lay their eggs 17 years ago, and now the next generation is crawling out of the ground everywhere. They will climb pretty much any vertical surface, hoping it's a tree.

 In some cases -- when they ascend a telephone pole or a wooden fence post, for example -- their mistakes may be understandable. But they also climb brick walls, car tires, even the vacuum cleaner I use to dispose of them. They are remarkably reckless, even for sex-crazed 17-year-olds.

 And these cicadas are helpless when they run into trouble. Unlike, say, grasshoppers, they don't have the sense or the agility to avoid an oncoming vacuum nozzle. If they happen to fall on their backs, they just lie there with six feet kicking in the air until they starve, a bird snaps them up, or someone steps on them.

 The 17-year cicadas' only survival tactic is their vast numbers, the very thing that makes them so revolting. If you have a few cicadas in your yard, you've got wildlife; if you have hundreds of thousands, you've got a plague. This is just the sort of thing God used to punish the Egyptians, except their swarms didn't last as long.  

 But according to Jeffrey A. Lockwood, a professor of natural sciences and humanities at the University of Wyoming, the cicadas are a blessing, not a curse. "Their celebration of the flesh reminds us that underneath our tidy gardens and parks lurk vestiges of untamed nature," he writes in a New York Times op-ed piece. "They are not something to fear and loathe, but to embrace."

 Don't embrace them too hard, though, unless you want insect insides all over your shirt as well as your sidewalk.