Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Grandpa Cricket: Cicadas and Childhood

For me there is a certain melancholy that comes with this time of year. It is triggered mostly by the daily choruses of the male cicadas looking for mates. The adults are nearing the end of their long life cycles, some as long as seventeen years. They are spending the short summer as adult flying creatures, preparing to mate, secure the next generation, and die with the coming of Fall. Those cicada songs portend the end of my beloved Summer and the beginning of the darkness of Fall and Winter. It is the annual cycle that lifts me up and puts me down with every orbit of earth around the sun. Whatever it is for them is one thing. For me, the cicadas sing a song of coming darkness.

My introduction to cicadas came long before I knew what they were and long before I ever saw one. As a little boy I was mesmerized by that sound. I can still remember running around with a jar, catching lightning bugs on late Summer evenings . I recall being focused on the little flashing things that I could see while ignoring the chorus of things that I couldn't see as the daylight faded away. But sometimes the raspy voices would penetrate my consciousness and there they would be! Those invisible, loud singers who started as soloists then built into some kind of mysterious and magnificent choral crescendo of textured sound. Who were they? How big must they be to make so much noise? Where were they? Why couldn't I see them?

My dad supplied the only answer I had for a long time. "Listen," he would say as one of them started up. "It's Grandpa Cricket." That was all the information I had and all the information I needed. My little four-year-old mind took over and constructed Grandpa Cricket out of just the name, the big sound, and an overactive imagination. Grandpa Cricket was huge,  mysterious, formless, and probably had an appetite for little boys who strayed too far from their parents on late Summer evenings. My dad allowed the fantasy. In some way it helped keep me in check. I am sure he was amused to no end but he never let on. As far as I was concerned, Grandpa Cricket was real and at least as big as I imagined. He was real because my dad, the biologist, had told me so. That was good enough.

  Newly Emerged                Mature 
It was years before I ever saw Grandpa Cricket in person. Even as I picked up those strange brown cicada nymph casings, I did not make the connection. I think I must have been twelve or thirteen years old before I learned about the life cycle and associated Grandpa Cricket with those large flying bugs with the clear wings, huge eyes, and greenish frosty looking exoskeletons who were not really crickets after all. I had even handled a few of the mostly dead or dying ones I found lying about during the late Summer.

Nymph Skeleton and Adult Remains

My very first focused encounter with an active cicada turned out to be my most exciting. I was maybe fourteen years old at the time. I heard a cicada calling from a nearby large bush and decided to try to find him. I wanted to get close enough to watch him make that noise. I wanted to be close enough to see every detail of that elusive big bug. So began the dance. I would move toward the sound. The sound would stop. I would freeze in place and wait. The sound would begin again and I would move again, closer and closer. It would stop. So would I. Sometimes I could barely move before it stopped but I was a determined cicada stalker. After what seemed like a lifetime of juvenile stealth, I was close enough for the sound to be almost deafening. But I still could not find the cicada. Something about his sound made it impossible for me to pin down his location, even though I knew I was within a few feet of my quarry.

I may have been having trouble finding the cicada but somebody else had no trouble at all. Something streaked past my head and into my field of view! Wham! My eyes followed it to where it landed and there right before me was Grandpa Cricket! But he had company. That streak was a large wasp, heavy bodied with bold yellow stripes on the abdomen. It had flown right past my head to attack the cicada. The two of them were locked in a struggle that was going to have only one outcome. The wasp stung the cicada who let out one last weakened crackly call then fell silent and motionless. After a short time, the wasp took off carrying the cicada into the air! They vanished as suddenly as the wasp had appeared. The once mighty Grandpa Cricket was gone, carried away by a creature smaller than himself but impressive enough. Grandpa Cricket's magic power over me was gone too, at least most of it. A bit still lives inside that little boy who still lives inside of me.

Grandma Cricket still looks pretty formidable
In the age long before the internet and long before Google, I set out to find out about that flying streak that had taken down the mighty ghost of my childhood. I was not ready for what I found.The flying predator does not kill her prey to eat. In fact she doesn't kill it at all, at least not right away and not directly. She is known as the  cicada killer wasp. As with many such wasps, they sting their prey, not to feed themselves but to feed their as yet unborn young. Cicada killer females are specialized predators. They sting cicadas to paralyze them, not to kill them. They bury the living cicada in a nesting chamber they have dug in the ground. They lay a single egg on the hapless cicada who remains sealed in the chamber until the young wasp larva hatches. The youngster feeds on the cicada throughout his early development until he becomes an overwintering pupa. The following Spring it emerges as an adult and begins the cycle all over again. Adult wasps don't eat cicadas. They are vegans like lots of wasps and seem satisfied with flower nectars alone.

Just recently as I was having one of my frequent walkabouts in the backyard I came upon a cicada in the grasp of a cicada killer. Unbelievable! There it was again. Just what I had been writing about in this blog. Now I could have the perfect photo to go with the rest. I ran for my camera but by the time I got back to the scene the wasp had gone. The cicada was still there, motionless but abandoned. I was so disappointed but not surprised. Sometimes the wasps  will abandon prey if it seems too much trouble to get it to the nesting site. I waited at a distance for almost two hours to see if she would return and claim her prize. She never came back. I guess I will have to publish this one without my own picture of one of the stars of the show.

As for the cicada, not to worry. Nothing goes to waste in nature. The ants had already begun to investigate. If they had not come along, a bird certainly would have. It was fresh protein. It was also a fresh opportunity for me. I shooed the ants away and brought the cicada inside for a more formal photo, this time of Grandma Cricket. She is still here. I thought about returning her to the outside to meet her already sealed fate. But then I began to imagine that she might be aware of what is happening. Being eaten by bird might make for a quick and merciful end. Being slowly dismantled by a swarm of tiny ants seems like a pretty horrible way to go. Perhaps neither is as bad as being a long term meal for the offspring of the creature that paralyzed you in the first place. Maybe nature is more merciful than I think. Maybe with the paralysis comes complete unconsciousness. I hope so. In any case, for now she is here, uneaten but not going anywhere.
Female Cicada: Alive but Paralyzed by Cicada Killer Wasp

Many years ago and miles away from here, I had another encounter with the cicada killer wasp. It changed my whole outlook on the insect world. But that story will have to wait for another time. In the meantime, before it is too late in the season, go outside this Summer and listen carefully to that chorus of the cicadas. Imagine yourself to be a little boy who had been told that those voices have a name: Grandpa Cricket. If you listen carefully, you may hear one of them emit a short stutter of a call, one that sounds like it has been interrupted or choked off. Chances are that one has just met a cicada killer (or perhaps a hungry bird).

August 14, 2010 Update:

While Grandma Cricket might have remained alive but paralyzed in the confines of the cicada killer's nest, she did not survive the week here with me. Now I am wondering what keeps them on life support during the period of confinement before they are eaten by the young wasps. In any case, I have sought to immortalize her with one last photo before I release her to the elements.

Panoramic View of Cicada. Click on Image to Enlarge


M.S said...

Jim: This entry is an utterly captivating literary and pictorial wonder. I sit here on this warm evening listening to nature's symphony, seeing (feeling, sensing, hearing....) your images within my mind, my body, my heart. You never cease to amaze me.

Anonymous said...

Grandpa Cricket is both a wonderful personal essay, but also a beautiful photo. I too have loved cicadas all my southern life. I can hear them in my mind’s ear. Lots of them, and joy, and love all year long.

Patience Vanderbush said...

Jim, I enjoyed this post on many levels. Thanks for illuminating the natural world for me. I'm pretty ignorant about all this but am drawn in by your great passion for your subject matter and lovely writing. Nice also to get a glimpse of that little boy...

Anonymous said...

Jim friend, Thank you. Loved the story and the education that came with it. And now here I am hearing both the night cicadas and the Caribean sea in Playa Negra Costa Rica, I saw yesterday how ants are ready to deal with nature. What an extraordinary beautiful story.That allegory of feeding on the cicada as the larvae grows... Gracias friend,

Louise Davis Stone said...

This is a beautiful story. I expected the photography to be wonderful. But that which impressed me was the fact that someone else connects cicadas with childhood like I do. Just today I was driving on Garrett Road and heard their sound -- I was transformed! Thank you!

Sedona said...

Jim,I was so utterly captivated by this that I was on the edge of my seat! You write so beautifully, and with so much passion and substance. What a talent! By the way, I, too, have coincidentally been listening to the cicadas over the past 3 days. However, I will now listen with a brand new perspective!

Susan Carver Williams said...

You are not only a masterful photographer of the natural world, but a superb storyteller, writer, and educator. This works on so many levels.I've shared the link with dozens of friends so they, too, can experience the cicada with you. Thank you so much for your attention to the smallest of creatures. By the way, I believe this should be published in a science journal. Academics could learn from you how to convey information in an appealing way. I'd also love to see it in the New Yorker or other widely-read publication. It's that good.

Anonymous said...

Love this Russian-doll imagery:

"A bit still lives inside that little boy who still lives inside of me."

- Adam

CL Fitzpatrick said...

A most beautiful homage to late southern summer's swan song. I will never hear cicadas the same again.

Anonymous said...

This entry stirred up so many emotions about both you and the cicadas. It made me cry. So beautifully written--and the photographs are amazing. I'm awed by the whole post. You're an incredible writer and storyteller. I can just picture you perfectly as a little boy. And, I have more respect for insects now--but I don't want them in my house.

Anonymous said...

good!it' s very useful!thx!