Photo by Lucy Brzoska
Cicada in the park
In the park, benches in the shade are at a premium and the sprinklers are on in force. The hissing curtains of recycled rain water form puddles on the dusty paths where magpies gather for a splash.
As the midday temperature inexorably climbs, the cicada orchestra reaches a crescendo. Up in the pines, the hectic rhythms almost manage to drown out the squawking parakeets. But considering their abundance, cicadas are surprisingly difficult to detect. Scattered invisibly around us, their song seems to be generated by the heat itself, providing a frenetic soundtrack to summer.
If you manage to track a cicada down to its spot on a tree, you’ll find a sturdy-looking insect, with wide-apart eyes and long transparent wings that curve like sycamore seeds. As it clings to the bark, the male turns into a musical instrument. Special membranes called tymbals start thrumming and the sound is amplified by a largely hollow abdomen. A parkful of vibrating cicadas, sucking sap to keep their strength up, can kick up a percussive storm.
Unlike the happy-go-lucky creature immortalised in Aesop’s fable, who fritters the summer away, the cicada has no time to lose in its short, intense life above ground. Singing is a serious business it’s the way the males prove their worth to discerning females and decibel levels are what counts. What’s more, they have no need to store food like their moral superiors the industrious ants, since by winter they will have reached the end of their life cycle or been eaten.
Once coupling has been accomplished, the female lays her eggs into a suitable tree or plant. The emerging nymphs drop down and bury themselves underground, where they’ll spend the cold months living off root sap. The following summer, the survivors will tunnel their way up out of the darkness and into the heat.