Friday, September 18, 2009

The Homliest Bug

A few nights ago I went out on my back porch, just to sit in the dark and think. As I sat down, there was a buzzing sound by my chair I remembered hearing the first time in childhood. I stepped to the door and turned on the porch light.

Sure enough, is was a cicada. The name is a direct derivation of the Latin cicada, meaning "buzzer." We called them “jar flies” here in East Tennessee when I was a child, but some of the old folks still called them “locusts,” as in “seven year locusts” or “fourteen year locusts,” in reference to their habit of emerging in cycles in huge numbers.

In addition to the big cycles, there are always some that emerge every year to sing their mournful song, produced by vibrating specialized organs called “timbals” along the sides of the abdomen. Locals get used to the sound but last year, a visitor from California was fascinated by the sound.

I don’t know the species of the one I saw on the porch or even the species of the ones that come out in large numbers during seven and fourteen year cycles. I do know they are ugly and clumsy, like giant houseflies – up two inches in length -- with a huge eye on each side of their heads and tree smaller eyes. Dogs, cats, birds and other predators feast when a large cycle emerges.

For the cicadas between large cycles, it must be like arriving at a family reunion where most of the guests didn’t show up – when the nymphs emerge from the ground, climb a tree and shed their outer skins.

Other than being a periodic source of protein for predators and even human beings in some places, the big, ugly and clumsy bugs always make me wonder why they exist. There is a reason, though. You can bet on that.

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