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Flying salt shakers of death

April 9, 2021

This piece represents the opinion of the author.
Kayla Snyder

The year 2021 is bringing another plague into town. Luckily, this one isn’t another deadly virus. It’s just a crap ton of insects. Every 17 years, billions of cicadas, called broods, emerge from deep underground for weeks of frenzied mating. This year heralds the arrival of Brood X. Since 2004, when they were just babies, these little buggers have been feeding on the roots of trees and slowing growing to maturity. In the next month or so, when the soil warms to 64 degrees, they will collectively exit their catacombs and a third of all U.S. states, from Georgia to New York, will fall victim to a cicada invasion. Washington, D.C. is supposed to bear the brunt of the swarm, with 1.5 million cicadas per acre.

So, what exactly will this insect invasion look like? Or better yet, what will it sound like? The male cicada mating song can reach up to 100 decibels, which is equivalent to the volume of a lawn mower or chainsaw at close range. The sound will be a cacophony of three distinct melodies from three different cicada species. According to Christine Simon, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, “The song of the first species sounds like a flying saucer landing from a 1950s science fiction movie. The middle species sounds like someone took water and threw it into hot oil. The third one sounds like an angry squirrel.” Blend these noises together and you get a terrifically horrible racket—to our ears. To a cicada’s ear holes, it’s the sexiest sound ever.

If a female likes the mating call of a specific cicada beau, she’ll flick her wings, making a popping sound that will signal her interest to the male. Once a partner has been secured, the coupling can go on for a long time—the longest mating recorded was 96 hours. Cicadas have serious stamina. After a female cicada has been impregnated, she will make an incision in a tree branch and lay up to 600 eggs. Once the larvae have hatched, they will plummet to the ground and burrow to the tree’s roots, where they will lie waiting for another 17 years.

The arrival of Brood X, aside from waging an barrage on our eardrums, will also result in mass carnage. Of cicadas, I should say, not humans. Male cicadas typically only survive for 6 weeks before dropping dead. In areas most densely populated with the critters, the ground will be nice and *cronchy* with cicada carcasses, and it may be impossible to drive with the windows down without getting a cloud of unwelcome passengers inside the car. It may seem apocalyptic to us, but it’s heaven for our pets and other animals. Cicadas make fantastic snacks; many animals will gorge themselves on the insects to the point that they fall into food comas. Yummy.

Many male cicadas may also fall prey to a wacky fungus that will make their butts fall off. Yes, this is a real thing. The fungus, called massospora, will eat away a male cicada’s lower third, genitals and all. It will also zombify its host through an amphetamine called cathinone. Hopped up on drugs, the cicadas will suddenly become very horny. You’d think they’d be hindered by their buttlessness, but on the contrary, they become extra motivated to fly around and find a mate. In the process, the fungus is able to spread to other cicadas. This is why these broods are called “Flying Salt Shakers of Death”; they will sprinkle tuchus-munching fungus wherever they roam.

So if you find yourself in southern and mid-Atlantic parts of the U.S. in the next few months, keep an eye (and an ear) out for cicadas. More likely than not, you’ll see and hear more than you ever wanted to.

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