Cicadas season nears end later this month

*State AP Wire, USA Today

A summer without the spastic flight, echoing song and discarded shells of cicadas is unthinkable for Sherry Jimerson Price.

She was raised with a love of the ancient insects and remembers collecting their abandoned husks to wear as broaches at her grandmother’s house, not far from where she and her husband live in Henderson.

Mrs. Price, 45, said this year, she has seen more cicadas and remnants of their shells than in the past.

“I think it’s because of the heat,” she said. “I can see them flying around in our trees, and there are a bunch of dead ones around here, too.”

She said the songs even sound louder this year.

However, one insect expert said the population has been “stable.”

“Generally speaking, for a lot of animals, including insects, the population levels tend to be stable,” said Srini Kambhampati, chairman of the Department of Biology at The University of Texas at Tyler.

As far as cicadas go, “weather might a have a little impact, but in the long term, it’s fairly stable,” he said.

Kambhampati said cicada season is coming to a close.

He estimates that “by the end of the month, they’ll be gone,” but a new generation will emerge next summer.

While the most famed cicadas are two types of “periodicals” with synchronized life cycles of 13 and 17 years, Kambhampati said Texas, for the most part, sees “annual” or “dog day” cicadas, which have life cycles of three to five years.

Although cicadas spend most of their lives underground, “they have their role in the ecosystem,” Kambhampati said.

In the “nymph” stage, they are plant feeders and survive off plant juices from roots and do not “do any real damage” to the plant, Kambhampati said.

As adults, they do not feed much, but rather “are food for a lot of other animals,” Kambhampati said.

In times of drought, cicadas are a welcomed food source to birds, fish and reptiles. Their main prey are the cicada killer wasps, which lay their eggs in the insects. Cicadas are hardly considered a pest, he said.

“I think they’re just part of nature — harmless, basically,” Kambhampati said. “If people found out more about cicadas, they’d be fascinated.”

East Texas’ dog day cicada is among 40 species in Texas and about 2,500 globally that have been singing for millions of years.

Kambhampati said the song is “very species specific.”

Only males sing, and each species has its own element to the song, which is used to attract a mate, he said.

Unlike crickets or grasshoppers, which rub their wings and legs to sing, cicadas use a tympanum, a membrane that acts as a “snare drum,” echoing as the cicada contracts and relaxes the muscle, Kambhampati said.

“A female may choose a song based on how good it sounds,” Kambhampati said.

He said some songs may indicate the strength of the cicada, while others may indicate distress if it is seized.

“Imagine if there were no cicada songs one summer,” he said. “It’s a ritual of summer.”

Throughout history, the creatures have been revered for their symbolism of rebirth and as bearers of good fortune and nourishing rains.

According to Insect Mythology, a book by entomologist Ron Cherry, people in China used cicadas as “imitative magic to help ensure life after death.”

As the nymph crawled from the ground, shed its skin and transformed into an adult, cicadas were seen as symbols of rebirth and resurrection, according to the book.

“The nymph becomes very still prior to molting and thus appears to ‘die,'” according to the book. “The adult cicada comes out of the ‘dead’ shell, just as the spirit of a deceased person should emerge out of his dead body.”

According to a 2006 study by Eraldo M. Costa Neto, their meanings differ from culture to culture.

For the Kalam people from New Guinea, cicadas are seen as a bad omen when they sing at the wrong time of day or near houses, according to the study.

However, to Yukpa Indians, who live in the Colombian Amazon, the insects indicate climate change and signal the cultivation cycle.

Sowing corn begins when cicadas sing, and when the ballad finishes the Yukpa know the rainy season has arrived, according to the study.

In Zambia, the coming of rain is indicative of the emergence of adult cicadas. Zambian farmers prepare their fields for cultivation and estimate the quantity of rainfall depending on the intensity of the cicada song, according to the study.

Whether the cicada song brought the 30 percent chance of rain today to Tyler, Mrs. Price enjoys the ritual of sitting on her porch just before dark, listening to the cicada symphony.

“I love it; it’s loud, but it’s neat,” she said.

Recently, she passed down a love of cicadas to her toddler grandchildren, Teagan and Taven Ingram, of Troup.

“Their little plastic Easter baskets were at the house, and we just decided, ‘Let’s go cicada shell hunting!'” Mrs. Price said. “It’s like Easter egg hunting. … I can let them come out, and they just go. All they have to do is look on the trees and on the fence.”

She said the adventure has an educational message.

“It teaches them about the bugs and that not all are bad or scary,” she said. “People want to kill them or try to make them go away, but they’re not hurting anything.”

Published August 13
Tyler Morning Telegraph

Published by Melissa Crowe

I’m Melissa: an adventure-seeking, story-telling, internet-loving journalist. I work in Seattle. You can find my work in the Puget Sound Business Journal where I use data to tell stories about the people, businesses and industries driving Washington state’s economy.

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