The Sounds of Summer

I spent my boyhood summers on Seneca Lake. The sounds there were very different from the ones I heard in the city suburb I lived in during the school year. What’s more, the day sounds at the lake were not the same as the nighttime ones. At night the peepers (tree frogs) were big-time noisemakers. Bullfrogs contributed their share to the racquet, as did owls. During the day, birds sang their hearts out as they mated, nested and raised their young.

But the high-pitched drone resounding from the treetops each afternoon always fascinated me. When I asked the locals what it was, they told me it was locusts. The noise was so loud that I imagined them to be huge, although I had never seen one. Yes, the locals confirmed when I asked for more details, locusts were big, fat, ugly bugs.I went to my trusty field guide and looked them up. Locusts looked like grasshoppers, but I knew about grasshoppers – I saw them every day. They were not big and black; they were gray like the gravel and sand of the beach. They clicked as they flew, and showed orange under their wings.

The noise I was hearing did not come from locusts, of that I was sure.

My cousin Bill (now Professor Willard Harman at SUNY Oneonta) finally clued me in – cicadas made the noise. Cicadas at the lake, he told me, were also referred to as “dog day” cicadas because of the droning sound they make during long, hot, summer afternoons. Their noisy treetop display is related to mating. After they mate, the female lays eggs on the twigs of trees and when they hatch, the larvae fall to the ground and burrow in. The resulting nymphs stay underground eating and growing for two to 17 years, depending upon the species. When they emerge it is to start the cycle over.

Yes, Bill said, some can have a lifespan of 13 or 17 years, and then emerge from the ground all at once with a spectacularly loud display. Here in the Finger Lakes, cicadas have an overlapping life span of two to five years so some appear every year. By sheer luck I had caught a few and showed them to Bill. He was, and is, a collector. He helped me with my butterfly collection and taught me a lot about the natural world.

During this particular science lesson, Bill and I put the cicadas under our shirts and got a big kick out of it when they buzzed like crazy. It tickled, too.

There don’t seem to be as many cicadas now as there were in my boyhood, but I still occasionally see and collect the exoskeletons they leave behind after they emerge. I am told that development, disease, farming and forestry practices, plus, lawn and agricultural pesticides are reducing their numbers. Cicadas need vertical surfaces to push against in order to emerge from their secretive underground world, so when trees, old fences and buildings are removed they get “stuck” underground.

It turns out there are some 2,500 species of cicada worldwide, many of which are eaten. Personally, I have never eaten one, but I learned that most insects are very sweet because they have high lipid content.

I was in Virginia one summer during the emergence of the 17-year cicadas. They, too, are big black bugs but look a little different than the cicada we have here in the Finger Lakes. They have red eyes, for example; whereas, ours have black eyes. Historically there were several places in New York State, mostly in the southeast, where 17-year broods emerged. The number may have by now decreased to as little as two places. The next emergence is expected in 2013.

It is often said that frogs and other amphibians are on a mysterious downturn, a shame for sure. We wouldn’t think of wetlands the same without frogs. I wouldn’t think of summer the same without the sounds of cicadas screaming from the treetops.


by Ralph DeFelice