Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at at time.

Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at a time.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Cicadas create sound, music, memories of Texas summer

That “REEEEEE! REEEEEE! REEEEEE!” sound coming out of the trees this summer is nothing to worry about. It’s not the sound of a UFO or aliens. It’s not some weird project out of Operations Test Command on Fort Hood.

It’s coming from the bugs.

The cicada, sometimes called the dog-day cicada, and the smaller periodical cicada, are a Texas summertime tradition and the most recognizable singing insects found here. The periodical cicada (Magicicada septendecim) completes its life cycle in 17 years. The dog-day variety (Tibicen species) live 2-5 years, so you’ve always got some kind of cicada showing up in the late spring to mid-summer.

That “singing” you hear are the male cicadas “calling” the females. That “song” is sung by means of two special vibrating membranes in the sides of the abdomen. Females do not call, but evidently they do answer. The result is clusters of eggs inserted to tree twigs, then hundreds of nymphs burrowing into the ground. Adults emerge from April through July, depending upon species and where y’all are at.

It’s a scene out of a 1950s science-fiction B movie. And you have my father to thank for my knowledge on that. Once again, the Texas college professor’s endless treasure trove of trivia has been passed on to you via his daughter; another triumph for the liberal arts crowd.

If you’ve come across mysterious brown, flaky exoskeletons on everything from gutters to trees to car tires, you’ve been formally introduced to the critters. The exoskeletons are shed by the cicada nymphs, and they provide endless summertime fun for children. My cousins and I used to play for hours with those nymph shells. First, we’d collect as many as we could find and organize them into armies, choreographing mega bug battles. Then we’d see how many we could string into our hair at one time.

Hey, when you’re out in the country and bored, that’s high-grade entertainment, y’all.

After that, we’d hide them all over my grandmother’s house and wait for one of our mothers or aunts to find them. There wasn’t much sport in that, since they’d all done the same thing a generation before us.

During the brief spell my parents and I lived in Wisconsin, I brought back cicada nymph shells from a trip home to Texas on summer break to school for show-and-tell. My classmates were appropriately creeped out by the experience. But I was considered the coolest kid in my second grade class for a whole two weeks.

My daughters, Katie and Lisa, are three. Much to my dismay, they are the girliest of girly-girls and the cicada nymph exoskeletons are nothing short of horrific and monsterous to them. I tried to induct them into the tradition of cicada childhood fun and they ran screaming.

I was crushed. I’ve since learned that I’m going to have to ease them into some of my Texas childhood traditions or save up for a whole lot of counseling in the future.

In case you were worried about the health and safety of your trees with regard to our Texas cicadas, don’t be. Texas species are not considered to be plant pests. On the contrary, they’re rather welcome.

Cicadas are our song of summer. It’s the song of iced tea, fifth Sunday suppers at the church, visiting grandparents, playing with cousins and running through the lawn sprinklers. It’s fireworks and fried chicken and family.

That cicada song was playing one afternoon when I came home for lunch. The boys were singing at the top of their lungs and it was a particularly hot day, as they’ve all been since late June. I stood on my front porch listening to that whine and thinking there was nothing more beautiful than that sound. It took me back to a simpler time when I wasn’t much older than my daughters are now. I almost could smell the okra cooking on the stove, taste the watermelon freshly cut on my grandmother’s front lawn and I could almost hear cows mooing in the pasture across the dirt road from her house…an experience I’ll probably never get to share with my girls.

But at least we will have the cicadas.

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