Sometimes, when I don’t know what to write about next, I go outside and sit in the garden, close my eyes and try to clear my mind in the hope that, in the peace and quiet, a great story idea will somehow pop into my mind. Every time I’ve been trying to do this in August though, all my thoughts are drowned out by the ear-piercing cry of the cicadas. They reach their crescendo in the middle of the day and I’ve always imagined that they are screaming exactly what we all might like to at this time of year, which is “Damn, it’s HOT!”
It also occurred to me how funny it is that a lot of noises, like the cicadas, your mind can sort of get used to and block out until you sit down and really listen. For example, we live pretty close to the motorway, the budgie likes to have a good ol’ tweet and we have a beautiful old clock in our house that goes ‘tick tock’ all day (and night) long - but I never hear them. It’s only when somebody comes around and says “Jeez, how can you even hear yourself think in here?” that the cacophony suddenly comes rushing back in.
So, anyway, seeing as these noisy little bugs seem so determined to get my attention, I thought I would see what I could find out a little about them.
But first off, can I actually find one? Cicadas are what is known as ‘cryptic’, which means they are very good at camouflage. You can say that again… I got up from my ‘idea chair’ and went out looking for the source of all the hullabaloo. The trouble was, and you will know this if you’ve ever gone cicada hunting, they tend to shut up as soon as you try to find them. But I was sure I heard one hiding in a bush, however even when it eventually resumed its high pitched screams, I couldn’t see it for the life of me. I was just about to give up when I suddenly saw that it was right in front of my nose (if you look at the picture you might understand why I had some trouble).
Turns out it’s only the male cicada that does all the screaming, as he hopes to attract a mate (he works himself up into such a terrific tantrum as he doesn’t have long to find a girl, as once they are fully matured, they only have a few weeks to live). They aren’t actually screaming, of course, but vibrating membranes on their abdomens, which are hollow (a bit like the inside of a guitar) and that’s how they amplify their mating call to such a deafening degree.
As amazing as it might seem to us, this racket is music to the ears of the female cicada, and after she’s been successfully serenaded the female will go on to lay up to 400 eggs in the slits between the bark of trees. About 6 weeks later the eggs hatch and the nymphs make their way down to the ground and bury themselves deep into the soil where they tap into the sap of plant roots. The cicadas that live here normally spend two to three years underground, however, some species in North America can spend up to 17 years under the surface (scientists reckon this is to ‘wait out’ predators so that they don’t get used to them regularly featuring on their menus).
When they eventually come up to face the world again, they crawl back up the tree trunks and shed their skins several times until eventually they end up with wings. To add yet another layer to this story (just when I thought I was finished) we looked more closely at the trees around the house and found several exoskeletons of what we reckon must be their former selves still clinging to the almond trees.
So, what about you? Are there any noises you don’t notice that bug other people?