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Written by Terry Spraque   
Aug 01, 2007 at 03:00 AM

 

FUNNY NOISES OF SUMMER

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

We would seldom see them, but they always called during hot August days when we were drawing in the last of the hay from those back fields next to the woods where cooling breezes never blew. My parents called them locusts, and proclaimed that they were calling for dry weather. Looking back, I think their calling had little to do with a prediction of any kind, except it always happened to be dry during the time of the year they traditionally sang.

The noise was deafening, but I never grew tired of listening to them, and still look forward to their loud shrill noise. The insects are more properly called cicadas. Only the males are able make this shrill sound, vibrating a platelike membrane on their thorax. And it must surely be a call for happy, as the insect itself has a very bizarre life history, spending 17 years underground as a nymph, emerging to mate, then dying within the month, if they don’t get eaten by something first. Hardly worth coming out of the ground for, one would think.

You have likely heard reference made to 17-year cicadas, and it’s the time underground which gives them that handle. But there are 13-year cicadas too, but they appear to be restricted to southeastern United States. However, that is not to suggest that they appear in cyclic swarms, as there are always broods in different stages of development emerging every year.

In the adult stage they look like oversized house flies, and we see and hear them for just that brief period of time when the males are busy making all that noise to attract a mate. The female deposits her eggs in the branches of shrubs and trees. Upon hatching the little nymphs fall to the ground and they immediately burrow underground where they will spend the next 17 years of their exciting life searching out tree roots from which they will obtain their nourishment. Internal clocks that have been preprogrammed to alarm after 17 years, signal the nymphs to head for daylight where they begin climbing the trees to a convenient location and proceed to molt, start their loud "singing", and begin the cycle again. Then, they die.

Just how loud are these musical insects? From a distance of only 60 feet, we are looking at approximately 80 to 100 decibels - about the same as listening to a jackhammer, according to one source. There is another insect which makes a peculiar and somewhat mysterious noise too, but it is a bit more subtle. It is the katydid, and they should start calling very soon. Musical instruments, similar to those of the cicada, called "organs of stridulation" have evolved on the wing covers of these insects. There is a file on one wing and a scraper on the other and when rasped together, produces the familiar grinding "katy-did" sound.

Katydids are related to the long-horned grasshoppers of the West which caused such extensive damage during the infamous cricket plague of 1948 when swarms of them descended upon fields of the religious refugees in Utah. At the critical moment, droves of gulls arrived, devoured the pest, and saved the new settlement. So, gulls are not necessarily always the undesirable element they are sometimes purported to be. After the plague, the grasshoppers became known locally as Mormon crickets and their enormous bands are still considered a concern in the West. Here, however, the katydid relative is quite harmless as there are so few of them.

Our more familiar short-horned grasshopper is the one I remember so well from my farming days some 20 years ago. Combining grain was always an experience as hundreds of these grasshoppers would leap away from the machinery, landing on my face and arms, or lining up like so many soldiers on the framework of the machinery. Those that failed to heed the advancing combine were processed with the crop and ended up in the grain bin.

This large notorious family includes the non-migratory grasshoppers, most of which live and die in the field where they were born, and the migratory species, commonly known as locusts. The Rocky Mountain locusts used to be a major plague of the Old West, destroying anything green in its path. To this day, many of our large cooperative insect control programs are aimed at grasshoppers, especially in the west.

Take some time this month, and listen to the buzzy whirring of the cicada and marvel at the life history of this interesting insect; be quick though, as they are on a tight schedule. Then keep your ears peeled at night for the raspy call-notes of the katydid as they should be calling any night now.

Last Updated ( Aug 07, 2007 at 08:39 PM )
 
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