By A. HYATT VERRILL
From Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, February 1902
Digital capture February 2008 by Doug Frizzle
With photographic illustrations by the Author
THE song of locust is familiar to us all, and yet how few are acquainted with the life history of this common insect, or are aware that the singer is not a locust at all but a cicada, a member of an entirely different order from the true locusts of the Orient and our western states! These latter have probably proved a greater scourge to mankind than any other insect, are nothing more or less than grasshoppers.
Like all well-regulated insects, the cicada begins his existence within an egg, carefully deposited by his parent in a tiny slit in twigs or fruit. The little grub, as soon as hatched, at once descends to mother earth, within whose bosom he industriously sets to work to bury himself.
Safe beneath the reach of frosts, our friend spends the winter months, sustaining life by sipping the sap of neighboring roots. Even when warm weather comes again and other cicadas sing gaily from their trees, the subterranean exile remains within the ground, daily growing larger and stronger, until a second winter has come and gone. Then a strange restlessness possesses him, and burrowing steadily upward, he at last emerges from his long retirement on some warm, moist August morning. A rough, horny, earth-colored creature he is, with strong hooked feet and bulky body. Clumsy is he also, and staggering along he gropes blindly about for some perpendicular object, up which he laboriously begins to climb.
Presently a slight quiver shakes his form and a little crack opens a-down his back. It seems almost as if his unwonted exertions had actually burst his horny shell, as the gaping wound reveals a mass of damp material within. Slowly the split widens and a broad and massive head, equipped with two great, shining eyes, pushes upward through the opening, and we realize that the birth of a cicada is taking place.
Slowly and surely the head slips forth, and we note between the two large eyes, a group of smaller ones which scintillate with golden luster, seeming to glow with satisfaction at again viewing the world of sunshine. With a smooth, gliding motion the thorax follows the head, and even as we watch, the first pair of legs are drawn forth and waver feebly about seeking for some hold. After these first legs follow the wings,—tiny, wrinkled, pulpy mats of dull green,—folded close against the body. Fully one half the cicada is by this time free, and yet the soft and flimsy legs have grasped no support and the whole weight of the new-born creature is held by the dry pupa-case still adhering by the now lifeless claws. Slowly and cautiously the tender insect bends forward towards the twig or branch, feeling carefully with its little legs until at last the tender toes grasp the bark. For a moment he moves not, gathering all his strength for a final effort. Then exerting all the power of his new-formed muscles, he tugs and pulls and strains. Ah, he is almost free! only a bare quarter inch remaining within the wrinkled shell that for so long had been his home. One more tug and he is free at last, and without more ado he crawls deliberately upward.
As he reaches a convenient spot, however, be stops to look about, and now for the first time be seems to realize that those soggy lumps upon his back must be intended for some use. Raising them slowly he waves them back and forth. They bear but slight resemblance to wings and yet as fanned by the air and dried by the sun, they spread and grow before our eyes, they imperceptibly assume a definite shape, and within a few moments have actually been transformed into delicate, lace-like organs of flight, although the transition has been so gradual that we scarce can say when the change took place. Now that the cicada has discovered his wings, it occurs to his mind that flight is in many ways preferable to walking, and, quick as a flash, the gauzy wings vibrate, and with such assurance as if he had flown all his days, the little fellow flips up and out of sight with a happy, cheerful buzz, to disappear among the leaves, where for the few short weeks of his life he will remain singing his stridulous song and sucking the life-blood of the trees; a happy-go-lucky creature with scarce a care.
But if the mind of the cicada has room for fear, surely the "locusts" must live in mortal terror, terror of an ogre; a great brown and black and yellow brigand, who, coming on swift and silent wings, may at any instant swoop down and seize the loudly-singing, unsuspecting creature, and stabbing him with a cruel, poisoned dagger, bear him off in triumph to his dungeon 'neath the ground, where, stunned and inert, he remains until the hungry progeny of his captor hatch from their eggs and fall upon him, rending him with ravenous jaws and literally eating him alive. This ogre of the cicadas,—their greatest and most dreaded enemy,—is a huge hornet, the giant of his tribe,— known as Sphecius or the cicada-killer. It is the largest and fiercest of our hornets or wasps and constructs a burrow two feet or more in depth, within which it lays its eggs, provisioning each cell with a living cicada rendered unconscious and helpless by judicious stinging.
Many people will perhaps wonder how it happens that the "locust's" song may be heard every summer, if, as stated, the larva requires two years to reach maturity. The secret lies in the fact that there are, and always have been two broods alternating, so that like the poor, the locusts are with us always. The life history of the "seventeen-year locust,"— a distinct, reddish-colored species of cicada,—is precisely like that of the common species described, except that in this case the metamorphosis requires seventeen years in the northern and thirteen years in the southern States, throughout which period the grub remains in the earth. In some parts of the country these seventeen-year visitors have several broods, so that the paradox of seventeen-year locusts appearing within a year or two of each other often occurs, and ignorant persons at once surmise that some great calamity is about to befall them.