Volume 12, Issue 19 ~ May 6-12, 2004
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Not Just for Kids

Cicada Cadences
by Martha Blume

Have you ever been to a cicada party?

Like any good party, it has all the right stuff: good friends, good food, entertainment and especially good music. Gather some friends around the first full moon in May — that’s May 6 — to go outside to watch periodical cicadas emerge from their underground hidey-holes.

photo by W.R. Fink Jr.
During a cicada party in 1987, this cicada was caught emerging. It’s one parent of this year’s brood. You’re seeing it upside down; cicadas emerge hanging down from a branch.
Cicada Lore
Thousands of species of cicadas inhabit the world, but the periodical cicadas are the cream of the crop. They emerge, en masse — that means in huge numbers — in cyclical patterns. They live only in the East. In the Southeast, cicadas follow a 13-year cycle; in the Northeast, we have 17-year cicadas, and their 17 years are now up.

This means that in 1987 — before you were born, before the World Wide Web and e-mail, cell phones and SUVs, when Britney Spears was six and the first George Bush was elected president — these cicadas began their lives as eggs laid in twigs of trees. The eggs hatched into wingless, scaly nymphs that dropped to the ground, burrowed in and remained there, sucking on tree roots, for 17 long years. Think of Harry Potter in his closet under the stairs.

Clearly, they deserve a good party.

This spring’s their time.

Experts think they come up when the soil temperature reaches about 64 degrees.

They’ll burst out of the ground one night as if rising out of their grave. Then they’ll climb the nearest tree or shrub, where they break out of their shell-like skin. What will emerge is a delicate, white creature with bright red eyes.

The drama continues as these adult cicadas slowly pump up their new wings to fly for the first time in their lives. They leave their old shells behind. You’ll find the shells — about a half inch long, brown, hollow and crunchy, with an opening split down the back — the next morning.

They don’t have a lot of time. In a few weeks, the cicadas will die.

Their eggs, however, will live 17 years.

Cicada Song
Their newfound freedom gives them something to sing about. Alas, only the males can sing. Their abdomens contain two chambers, one on each side. The inner wall of each chamber is stiff. When moved in or out, it makes a vibrating sound. A muscle can pull the wall back and forth up to 600 times a second! Since most of the abdomen behind the wall is hollow, the sound is greatly amplified.

To us, it sounds like a loud rhythmic buzz-hum. Our human ears hear only the half of it. The cicada females, who can distinguish their own species by the cadence of the song, listen to find their mate.

A male cicada’s abdomen works much like a kettledrum. Make a kettledrum by stretching a piece of plastic wrap very tightly over the top of a metal bowl and securing it with a rubber band. Beat gently on the drum with your fingers. Hear the vibrations?

Now stand in a large empty room and beat it 600 times a second. Impossible! But if you could do it, you might attract a female cicada. Now experiment with different sizes of metal bowls. Can you make a drum set?

Word Attraction
In nature, a cadence is the rhythmic recurrence of a sound. The word comes from a Middle English word meaning to fall. Cadence can also mean a falling inflection of the voice or a falling musical strain.

The Riddler
They’re H-e-r-e ~ by Jean oaks

Look here! Oh — over there!
Oh, my goodness; they’re everywhere!
It’s raining bugs. What shall we do?
Watch out! There’s one on you!
Let’s find out just what they are.
Help me put one in a jar.
Eewww — it’s gross!
Without trying to be verbose,
I’ll describe it:
Two inches long, orange veins on wings.
Reddish eyes — ghoulish things!
Heavy black body; what’s that noise?
(Doesn’t have a lot of poise!)
Incessant droning; how long will this last?
About six weeks, then it’ll be past
The time for them to emerge.
That’ll be the end of this scourge.

What are they?

Click here for the Answer!

Kids Calendar

Friday, May 7
Overnight Adventure
Kids 6 and older bring your parents, a tent, a flashlight and sleeping bag for a night of outdoor fun, food, games and activities. 6pm Fri thru 8am Sat @ Southern Community Center, Appeal Ln. (off Rt. 765), Lusby. $5; rsvp: 410-586-1101.

Saturday, May 8
Hansel and Gretel
Annapolis Opera sings the scary story of the brother and sister left in the woods and the witch who took them in to fatten them up before serving them for supper. 10:30am @ Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St., Annapolis. $6: 410-267-8135.

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Last updated May 5, 2004 @ 11:30am.