Monday, July 6, 2009
All my life I've seen little brown cicada shells in the early summer clinging to branches, trees or bushes. My father was a biologist and when I was a kid I had quite the insect collection. Occasionally, I would find a dead adult cicada (sometimes called "locusts") but I never say an adult until fairly recently. When we lived in Iowa back in 1997 or 1998 there was a hatching of 17 year cicadas and then they were everywhere, you couldn't miss them. Their life cycle is fascinating. Here's the wikipedia link if you are interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cicada
Basically, they live under ground all winter, sucking sap from the roots of trees. Then in early summer they crawl up the tree and "hatch" into adults who fly away, mate, lay eggs and the whole thing continues. You can hear them in the trees, they sound kind of like a whirring sprinkler system.
Anyway, all I ever saw was the shells and the occasional adult. There's a tree outside our apartment that always has a bunch of the shells on it in July. So this year, like most years, I hoped to actually see the emerging cicadas. Instead of forgetting all about it until it was too late, I was returning home from a late dinner out with friends and I remembered to check the tree. And there they were in various stages of emerging!
What you see here are some pictures I took over two nights that capture some of the process. The little nymph thing crawls up the tree (they're actually pretty fast!) and finds the right "spot." Once they find the spot, they split open and the winged version starts to push its way out. As they emerge they arch way back. It looks like they'll fall but somehow they don't. I think they arch back this far to free up their legs which then reach forward and grab to the shell. Once they do that they begin to expand and pump up the wings. I think they actually pump liquid into the veins on the wings. The wings expand until they are full. The veins are actually a very light yellow green color at this point and the entire cicada, normally a tough as nails little bugger, is very soft and vulnerable. The wings harden, the veins turn much darker and away they go!
So finally, after decades of wondering how they do it, I got to see it for myself. Nature is amazing. This little miracle has happened, like so many others, right under my nose all my life and I'm just now seeing it. I could live to be ten thousand years old and not run out of things like this to find out about.