Cicadas - a rare writing opportunity - are back

I can't make up my mind most days whether I find cicadas fascinating or disgusting.

I can't deny, though, that they provide a great writing opportunity.

I wrote my first cicada story in 1990 for The Doings. My father-in-law, John Litster, was a letter carrier in town and had recorded interviews with homeowners on his route about the emergence of these rare insects. Their comments were hilarious.

Seventeen years later, in 2007, before this paper had even turned a year old, I wrote an "Ask an Expert" featuring bugolist Sid Cicada, a figment of my imagination. I made up what I thought were very amusing quotes to convey a lot of information about cicadas. I enjoyed myself enormously. We laughed even harder when a reader wrote in with a question for Mr. Cicada - and didn't seem to get the joke.

Cicadas are great fodder for humor, perhaps because no one is quite sure how to respond to millions of bugs that appear once every 17 years.

The DuPage County Forest Preserve District put together a 2 minute, 48 second video on the 17-year cicada. Staffers, dressed up like cicadas at various stages of their life cycle, act out the insects' various activities while Tom Velat, the forest district's ecology supervisor, narrates the various activities the cicada participates in during the few short weeks of its life.

My favorite part of the video was the male cicada's cheesy pickup line: "Say girl, if I was a fruit fly I'd land on you first because you're so sweet," he says.

If you want a few good laughs, and to learn more about cicadas, search TikTok for "DuPage Forest cicadas."

Scientists, of course, are giddy at this infestation. Carl Stang, a former forest district staffer who is now an independent researcher, spoke to forest commissioners May 7. (Thanks to Hinsdale's commissioner, Linda Painter, for sending out the link to his talk and the hilarious video.)

"Different people have different reactions," he said. "If you're kind of a geeky person, like, me, yay, this is going to be fun, it's going to be interesting. It's on the short list of distinctive features of North American biology known around the world."

Others will plan vacations to avoid it entirely, he said.

He shared some facts about the bugs, which last appeared while he was working as a staff naturalist at Fullersburg Woods and had to wear earplugs.

"It would have be deafening to be under one of the chorusing trees," he said.

The two species of 17-year cicadas, Magicicada septendecim and M. cassinii, can be identified by their songs, he said, which they use to attract females to meet. The creepy albino cicadas (my words, not his) are the ones that have just emerged from their exoskeletons. They will change color usually within a day. The females lay 400 to 600 eggs by cutting slits into the ends of twigs, which then die and turn brown.

"That's one way of measuring how much reproduction you've seen in a spot," he said.

(If you've heard about the two broods showing up for the first time since 1803 and are wondering where that second brood is, don't worry. It emerges only in the southern half of the state.)

The cicadas will reach their peak numbers in June, he said, tailing off at the end of June with only a few left in early July.

After the eggs hatch, according to the forest district video, the nymphs will feed on tree sap, fall to the ground and eventually burrow underground, where they will remain for the next 17 years, eating more sap.

Until that happens, I will share some advice from Sid Cicada.

"In 30 days we'll be gone. In the meantime, get over it."

- Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean. Readers can email her at plannom

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean