hugabug 4: Cicada rain

by T. Nathan Mundhenk

Liquid waste from cicada anus will wet your head if you wander under a tree covered with the bugs.

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Music in this show:
1. Rodgers & Hammerstein, “March of the Siamese children”
2. Bang on a Can All Stars, “Sein Chit Tee A Mhat Ta Ya”
3. Hot Chip, “Over & Over”
4. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)

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from Lafcadio Hearn 1919 (Shadowings)

Every 13 or 17 years–on the dot–millions of cicadas emerge from the ground simultaneously. When you walk under a tree full of cicadas–that wetness? It’s not rain. Those are rectal squirts.

It’s true–liquid waste from cicada anus will wet your head if you wander under a tree covered with these bugs. Because they suck tree juice that’s low in nutrients but high in water content, cicadas keep the nutrients but expel most of the water as urine in jet streams of anal squirts, otherwise known as “cicada rain”.

A periodical cicada lives underground for either 13 or 17 years straight. The cicada barely moves from one small spot in the soil, buried just 1 or 2 feet under the forest floor or your lawn.

After exactly 13 or 17 years, somehow the cicada knows when to dig a tunnel to the soil surface and join literally millions and millions of other cicadas that also somehow knew that all the other bugs finally were poking their heads aboveground pretty much simultaneously. All these millions of cicadas cover trees, bushes, houses, telephone poles–every vertical surface.

If you find yourself amid millions upon millions of these bugs, you’ll see that it’s impossible to move without stepping on dozens of their little bodies. It’s impossible to speak without yelling, because the males sing loudly, incessantly, begging the female cicadas to mate with them. The deafening symphony of millions of cicadas reaches the same volume as a jackhammer or a subway train.

And birds love it; they eat it up. These bugs crawl everywhere as a free buffet of slow, little, defenseless bodies that don’t even scatter when a bird attacks. But gluttonous birds can’t eat even half of the cicadas in these outbreaks. Most of the cicadas survive, pee on your head, and make babies. That’s the beauty and genius of it all! It’s an effective tactic of safety in numbers.

And cicadas are a brilliant natural lesson in prime numbers. Millions of cicadas simultaneously tunnel out of the soil at indivisible intervals of 13 and 17 years. The more typical 2- or 4-year life cycle of birds doesn’t match well with the atypical lifestyle of these cicadas.

Graphic designers can use a similar trick. They can make a repeating visual pattern seem organically random by repeating the pattern in prime-numbered intervals.

This mathematical strategy also helps you buy things online. The internet keeps your credit card information secret by encrypting it using prime numbers.

The 13- and 17-year cicadas live only in North America, but ancient Chinese, Greek, and Japanese cultures revered other cicadas for a long, long time. Small bronze model cicadas were used as currency in China, and the bugs show up on ancient Greek coins.

All that, even though cicadas pee on your head.

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WCBN-FM Ann Arbor concludes its annual fundraiser this weekend. If cicadas can count to prime numbers, you can do the math: WCBN needs your donation to survive. Donate to WCBN in the name of insects. Keep the predators at bay, so we can keep making noise.

from H.A. Ramsden 1914 (Model-Insect Money of Ancient China)

And hug a bug. Hug millions of periodical cicadas, why don’t you. Every 13 and 17 years.

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These videos may help you understand what cicadas are like:

A fantastic cartoon about a cicada

Here’s an idea of what you can expect when millions and millions of cicadas emerge outside your house.

More and even more “cicada rain”.

The mesmerizing molt of a cicada

David Attenborough woos a male cicada. The video contains a nice time-lapse video of a cicada molting. Note: The sound effects at the beginning of the video are just that–for effect. When cicadas emerge from the soil, their sound-making organs (tymbals) actually have not developed yet. Males can sing only after their final molt. Also note: Cicadas are incredibly loud.

from H. Garman 1903 (Agricultural Experiment Station of the State College of Kentucky, Bulletin No. 107)

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