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The Kindly Cicada

Updated on November 22, 2011

The cicada looks like the kind of thing you wouldn't like to meet in the dark. Perhaps you wouldn't like to meet him at all. Yet he is quite harmless in spite of his looks-and when grown-up, he is actually very handsome. Strange as it may seem-this youngster (or nymph) will one day be a long-winged, loudly-singing, summer-loving cicada.

You do not often see a cicada at this stage, for while it is like this, it lives under the ground, as though it didn't want to be seen looking so ugly. Sometimes it goes to extremes, and lives very far under the ground indeed-about 20 feet-and it stays there for several years, in the dark, with nothing to eat except a bit of sugary sap out of the roots of plants.

Then, one night, after it has had enough of this kind of life, it makes its way up to the surface of the soil, climbs on to something and clings there waiting for its skin to split open. When it does split open, wedging and pushing movements can be seen, and at last a beautiful creature comes out of it, with long transparent wings.

It doesn't look very beautiful at first-just pale, soft, and rather shapeless. But by morning it is already straightening out, and a few hours later-with darkened color and strengthened wings-it is a full-grown cicada. And you know what fine fellows they are.

You also know how noisy they can be, on summer days and evenings. And, considering how long they have been living here, it is possible that their singing was the first sound made by any animal on Earth. Why, there are fossils of them which prove that they were here 400 million years ago - looking just the same as they do today.

There are many strange things about a cicada's singing. First, the lady is quite silent-it is only the male who sings. The next strange thing is that the whole idea of the song is to attract the lady's attention-yet cicadas have no ears, and are quite deaf. The third is that the sound is made with a sort of little drum on the cicada's abdomen. But instead of being tapped, this drum is crinkled in and out by movements of the cicada's muscles-and as it crinkles, it makes a surprisingly loud noise.

Although the lady cicada doesn't hear this "song", she feels it. She feels the vibrations it makes, and she likes them so much that she agrees to marry the clever "singer". Then, after a while, when she has eggs to lay, she chooses a suitable branch on a gumtree, and cuts a lot of little slits in its bark, until it looks quite fuzzy. Into each of these slits she places a few eggs, and when the baby cicadas hatch out, you would never guess what they were going to be, for they are black and very small, like fleas.

Also, you would be really lucky to see them at ail, for as soon as they come out of their eggs, they can think of only one thing - getting underground as fast as possible. They do not even waste time climbing down the tree. They just let themselves drop to the ground-and the next moment they have disappeared, to begin their long life as nymphs in the little dark and silent room they dig for themselves below the earth's surface.

Slowly, as the years go by, they grow bigger, and moult their skins, and grow bigger again, until at last they come up for a few weeks of summer sunshine in the glory of their final, winged form.

But now, as well as sunshine, they find danger, for birds and other animals go after them hungrily, and children are always catching them-quite often hurting them, also, I am sorry to say.

Yet of all insects, cicadas least deserve to be hurt, for they themselves do no harm to anything, and cannot even defend themselves against their enemies. They do not bite or sting, they do not burrow in the branches of plants or eat their leaves-and the small amount of plant juice that they suck, does no damage at all.

If you have ever hurt a cicada in the past, you never would again, would you? Knowing how good-natured it is, and how long it has lived underground in the darkness, I am sure that you would never wish to rob it of one precious moment in the light and warmth and joy of the sun. You might gently lift it off a branch to admire it, of course, but then, quickly, you would let it go again, marveling at this strange, bright insect who lives peacefully amongst its enemies, and whose song has resounded on our Earth through almost endless time.


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