I walked into a cemetery, that place of last rites and rest, looking for life. It should have been a short visit, for finding life in such a location hardly seems possible, but . . . for two hours yesterday I stalked the the gravestones and today I returned to the same spot where I once again roamed, and then continued up the road to another that surprised me even more.
It seemed the Hutchins family was watching over the first little specks of my attention, keeping them safe at a most tender moment in their life cycle.
Upon the granite wall that surrounded the Hutchins plot, two small, but actually rather large in the insect world, nymphs crawled and paused, crawled and paused. And my heart sang as it does when I realize I’m in the right place at the right time.
Who are these land lobsters, for such do their claws remind me. Dog-Day Cicadas. They complete their life cycle in 1 – 3 years. As nymphs or larvae, they remain underground feeding on plant juices from tree roots. In July, the nymphs tunnel up through the ground and crawl onto tree trunks or other surfaces like gravestones, which they latch onto with those over-sized claws.
Tickled to see two who looked like they were about to burst into new life, I watched with intensity, noticing that this, the second one, had green wings forming. And really, its head was already emerging, for if you look closely, you’ll note a small set of brown eyes closer to its claws and the new eyes much larger and darker in color protruding.
Winged cicadas emerge from a slit along the back of the nymph’s exoskeleton.
Back to the first, you’ll notice the same is true. And do you see where the second cicada had that hint of green, this one is more rosy red in color.
I could say that within minutes I noticed more of the body bulging, giving the nymph a hunchback look, but this is a transformation that takes time. Lots. Of. Time. They begin the process by arching and expanding the thorax until the larval cuticle fractures and the adult’s thorax appears, soon, or sorta soon, followed by its head.
Ever so slowly . . .
the rest of the body . . .
comes to life.
Both red and green complete this process simultaneously as I squat and watch.
Eventually, legs and wings are visible. Do you see the proboscis, that elongated sucking mouthpart or stylet that is tubular and flexible, extending from its nose?
How about now?
As the abdomen extends, four wings take shape.
In continued slow motion, they begin to unfurl . . .
and the insect wiggles its legs . . .
ready to get a grip.
Next, it pumps insect blood into its body and wings, which takes even longer, as in hours. After the cuticle hardens for a while and muscles grow stronger, the cicada pulls itself out of its former self.
Before it can fly, those wings need to dry, some resembling a rainbow.
Teneral to start, a breeze creates an angelic quality befitting the setting.
In time, the wings will fold over the cicada’s back, but until that happens, the rose-version offers a lesson that not all Dog-Day Cicadas look like camouflaged leaves among which they sing–the tree-top males producing the droning whirr of a song we all associate with summer by using their tymbals or paired membranous structururs in their abdomens that vibrate through muscular action–it’s this song that attracts females.
Today, I visited yesterday’s cemetery and found not much action, but a few miles north it seemed the summer chorus was preparing to take in new members.
First, however, they had to finish donning their choir robes.
And as I’d noticed for the first time yesterday, not all robes are the same color. Variation apparently is normal among cicadas, which provide me a wonder-filled lesson.
My question is this: what determines color? It can’t be temperature as from the many I saw today and few yesterday, all emerged at about the same time. And it can’t be location, for they were all in the same locale.
In fact, some even morphed upon the same family plot corner stone, this being the Evans family in Center Lovell, and their transformation occurred within minutes of each other.
Then there was another question–if they were so close to each other in emergence, would they get along? I watched these two for a long time, and though they got quite close occasionally, they seemed rather territorial, using. a foot or tarsus to push the other away. That, of course, is my human interpretation of what I was observing. The reality may be different.
A few headstones away, another for the red variety.
There are other lessons, such as this–like dragonflies, some nymphs transform atop the discarded exuviae of their relatives.
And while I expect that they only climb a few feet off the ground to morph, I’m proven wrong when I have to use my warbler neck to spy at least two on branches high above. Do you see them? Are there others that I missed?
I have so many more questions, but pull myself away once again.
I do often wonder if my presence bothers then, but have to hope that they realize I’m there to protect them from predators and learn from them during this time of transition.
Note that the proboscis is tucked under their bodies, as it won’t be needed until these cicadas reach the tree tops. Once up there, where I won’t be able to spy them, males will produce the droning whirr of a song we all associate with summer by using their tymbals or paired membranous structures in their abdomens that vibrate through muscular action–it’s this song that attracts females. After mating, the female lays her eggs in slits she makes in twigs. The young nymphs hatch, fall to the ground, burrow underground and feed on sap from roots for a year or two or three.
And then the day I wait for happens and I once again roam places where I know I can find them, cemeteries being my place of choice, and I spend hours stalking one stone and then another and back to first and then the second, over and over again, consumed as I am by cicadas.