Are cicadas demons living under us or are they misunderstood?

Cicada's grow underground for as long as 17 years before they come out and turn into adults to mate.  These insects scare the human race, but really they're just innocent creatures.  (Janesays/Flickr Creative Commons) 

Even as the insects disappear in the cold and the trees lose their leaves one by one, the periodical cicadas are pulsing with life beneath your feet, waiting until the moment their eyes turn red to begin plotting their escape in the millions.

While they may not suck your blood or infest your skin, these incredible creatures have carried with them centuries of myths and secrets. Henry Oldenberg in “Some Observations of Swarms of Strange Insects” wrote one account that leaves shivers down any spine after he visited America in the late 1600s.

He writes, “there being round innumerable little holes in the ground, out of which those insects broke forth in the form of Maggots, which turned into Flyes that had a kind of tail or sting, which they struck into the Tree, and thereby envenomed and killed it.”

Of course, cicadas aren’t going around killing trees for fun. They are depositing their eggs into stems with sharp knife-like appendages they use to slice into the wood. They carefully place their eggs in the v-shaped nooks they make, the eggs hatch and the newborn cicadas jump onto the ground and burrow beneath the soil.

During the Bacon Rebellion of 1676, Thomas Matthews, who was the son of the Virginia governor, Samuel Matthews, wrote about cicadas as one of three signs of disaster to befall the colonies in his “Virginia Rebellion in the 17th century.”

Like Oldenberg, Matthews found these insects strange and was both terrified and mystified by their enormous and loud swarms. He writes about them as a "swarm of flies about an inch long, and big as the top of a man’s finger, rising out of spigot holes in the earth.”

Even today, the locust-like swarms of these creatures are terrifying, mostly because they are so ear-numbingly loud. It’s no surprise that Matthews listed them among comets in the night sky and massive flocks of passenger pigeons when he talked about signs of doom to befall the early American colonies.

The insect world is full of mystifying and, at times, horrifying creatures that are deeply woven in intricate webs of the habitats in which they live. Somehow periodical cicadas get away with growing underground for as long as 17 years before they come out and turn into adults to mate. For centuries, biologists have pondered how and why these creatures decided to wait so long to come out. What’s even more amazing is that they have some mysterious way of timing themselves.

If every individual underground does not come up with every other individual, than there is very good chance that they will be eaten by predators, which are particularly fond of large and nutritious cicadas. In essence, you could call this a protection-in-numbers strategy because by timing their emergence, periodical cicadas come out in such large populations that predators cannot possibly eat them all. Consequently, many cicadas survive to lay the eggs of the next generation.

These red-eyed singers come with a rich natural history, as do many insects, and exemplify just how little we understand about the animal world. Insects themselves compose over half of the diversity we see in nature, which make them caverns full of scientific opportunity and cultural meaning.

Cicadas were not always characterized as such demons by early European-American observers. For thousands of years, eastern peoples regarded the cicada as a symbol of renewal and rebirth. In fact, the cicada’s song in Japan is reminder of the coming summer, a time of year UConn students are likely to crave once the winter sets in.


Diler Haji is a staff writer for The Daily Campus and can be reached via email at diler.haji@uconn.edu.