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LOSTATSEA.NET > FEATURES >

June 19, 2007
Every 17 years summer in Chicago means dodging those damn cicadas.

The last time Brood XIII of Magicicadas - these really pesky and hideous bugs that only see the light of day every 17 years - emerged in the Midwest (their official name is the Northern Illinois Brood), it was 1990 and I was six years old.

Back then I'm pretty sure that all I did was run around outside, dodging their beady red eyes, cockroach bodies and papery wings. As I became accustomed to the ugly buggers flying toward me, I began actively searching them out, looking for more of them in the lawn and under the rocks around my home - even if I did still consider them one of the nastiest things I had ever seen. My brother Patrick, however, wasn't as close-minded. He ate a fried one at a fun fair that summer. They apparently taste like almonds.

The cicada, which is a common insect throughout the world, has a life cycle unlike any other insect in the world, emerging above ground at the end of a period that lasts, for most, from two to five years. The Northern Illinois Brood, which is currently blanketing the territory for which they are named as well as parts of Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana, is often referred to as the "seventeen-year locust," but they are in fact not locusts, which belong to a different order of insect. The bugs' odd life cycle is an evolutionary development, designed to protect it from over-predation by birds and other insects such as the appropriately named cicada killer wasp.

Cicadas begin their lives when they hatch from eggs laid in the bark or branches of a tree and then fall to the ground and burrow into the soil, where they remain for 17 years, feeding until it's time to make their way up. When their biological clocks mark the time (not all are perfectly in sync - a small number emerged last summer), they slowly dig themselves out, emerging through holes about the size of a nickel, and make their way to the base of the tree from which they originally came. At the end of May the insects discard the flesh-colored shells of their subterranean life, which you can find in thick, crunchy piles gathered at the bases of trees. Leaving their underground skins behind, they emerge with bodies colored black, transparent and veiny wings, and large eyes that turn from milky white to vibrant red.

One of the cicada's trademarks is its song, made only by males as a mating call, which is like the low vibratory humming of a frog mixed with a pervasive layer of static. The sound, which is made by the contraction and release of drum-like membranes in the insect's hollow abdomen, can get as loud as blender and is the loudest recorded sound from an insect.

Far from the plague of the locust, cicadas don't bite and aren't really harmful (only the youngest of plants can be destroyed by their eating, which is relatively dainty compared to the appetites of locusts), but they are annoying as hell. Cicadas fly around your head, cover the ground and land on your neck and legs. Their only purpose is to eat and mate as much as possible in the limited time that they have - they die in about a month's time and then disappear until their offspring emerge 17 years later. That's some life.

In Flossmoor, a far south suburb of Chicago, the bugs made their return in numbers on May 19th. The insects prefer the bark of older trees, so some sections of the town have no trace of them. One way to find large numbers of cicadas is to follow the birds; this year I've noticed seagulls, having made the 20-mile commute from Lake Michigan, swarming tree-lined streets and parking lots in search of a cicada snack.

Within the city limits of Chicago, there are very few traces of the bugs amidst the brick and concrete, though people living in the more tree-dense neighborhoods have seen them.

Though I've aged 17 years since Brood XIII of Magicicadas last emerged, the bugs are no more appealing than they were in 1990, and I nonetheless continue to dodge them every time I'm outside. On a recent Sunday morning run, one managed to cross my path and land on the bottom of my shirt. I nearly stripped in the middle of the street to get it off me.

SEE ALSO: www.cicadamania.com

--
Sheila Burt
A contributing writer for LAS based near Chicago, Illinois.

See other articles by Sheila Burt.

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