Talking to your child about cicadas

This week’s blog post is by The Paternity Test co-host Matt Boresi, who lives in the Edgewater Glen neighborhood of Chicago with his wife (“Professor Foster”) and their 4-year old daughter Viva, who will soon be molting into a giant, screeching version of herself. Probably around middle school.

Have your little ones have asked you why trees have seemed particularly angry lately? It’s because they are teeming with enormous, amorous insects shouting out for satisfaction in deafening tones. It’s a difficult truth you’ll be reluctant to explain, but the night is alive with the sounds of giant horny bugs.

Some people call these insects “locusts,” but they are wrong. Locusts are giant grasshoppers found mostly in the Old Testament, but also in areas of every continent except Antarctica and North America. There used to be locusts here, but our farmers made them go extinct sometime around the turn of the 20th century. If there’s only one really great reason for your child to buy into the idea of American exceptionalism, it’s that we’re the only people on earth to make locusts go extinct. USA! USA!

We still have cicadas, though.

Some cicadas appear annually, while others appear in 13- and 17-year cycles. The ones keeping your children awake and making your front yard crunchy with exoskeletons and corpses are annual. There was an enormous 17-year brood (known as “Brood V” because cicadas are partial to Roman Numerals, like sequels in the ‘80s) that hatched this year in West Virginia, Western Maryland and Southeastern Pennsylvania. If you have relatives in those areas, you can assume they’ve been eaten, carried off or otherwise overcome by the cicadas, and you shouldn’t bother looking for survivors. They would have emailed you, but they don’t have internet in West Virginia; only cicadas.

Cicada larvae are born inside trees, crawl out, fall to the ground, burrow and eat from tree roots for up to 17 years while molting into about five different versions of themselves like subterranean Pokemon. Then they crawl out of the ground onto tree trunks where they molt again, leaving the crisp brown shells you find everywhere which inexplicably have eyes on them. If you child is wondering what they’re up against, they’re up against an insect that may be a good deal older than them and can shed the outside of its eyes. Mommy and Daddy can barely get their contact lenses in right-side out half the time, but these bugs can wake up and SHED THEIR EYE SKIN. The ground has burst with these things like a ripe hellmouth and now they’re perched above us, keening a perverse liebestod.

Oh, and sometimes cicadas pee out the sap they ate onto your head. Even though your child is probably rightfully terrified of cicadas, you should probably mention to them about the pee. Kids love potty humor, even in the face of impending swarmage.

Once the cicadas have molted into adulthood, they’ve got three or four weeks to live, and they’ve got to spend that time mating in what amounts to a month-long Rumspringa that ends in their expedient, if sated, demise.

It’s only the males that make the deafening chirping you’re hearing. These boys are 17 years old and loudly shouting out that they want sex, while the females click dismissively. If there was a Josten’s representative in every tree, this would be exactly like high school.

Once they start mating, the females will lay about 600 eggs and then drop dead. While your child can relax in knowing that these huge translucent green critters will be dead soon, they may be alarmed to know each tree in the yard may hold thousands of cicada nymphs which eat the tree’s lifeblood and dig out of the tree’s face like a Shel Silverstein story directed by Eli Roth.

Cicada, like humans, exist primarily to reproduce, at which time they become irrelevant and quickly decline. Their decline ends in swift death, while Mommy and Daddy’s decline begins with not understanding what Snapchat is all about, and ends in death 40 years later.

The last time a 17-year cicada brood emerged in Illinois was in 2007, when the skies went black with swarms and suburban yards were piled high with the reeking bodies of spent cicadas. News channels tried to offer cicada recipe ideas, but university studies suggested the insects were too filled with mercury to eat. This is an important lesson for your child: just when you think your yard is lousy with juicy, randy, edible bugs, they turn out to have enough mercury to choke a Piven. Nature is cruel.

Our next 17-year brood is literally called Brood XIII, and it emerges in 2024. So, tell your kids to enjoy the next eight years, because that’s pretty much what they’ve got left.

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