cicada

A look back at the cicada invasion of 2013.

What does the vintage sci-fi movie “Them” from 1954 have in common with the billions of cicadas that soon will be swarming in Northern Virginia? Other than the fact that they both involve insects, that is.

“Them” is one of my favorite science-fiction movies, and true to its era it’s all about giant ants that evolved after the 1945 Los Alamos atomic bomb tests. It’s one of a long list of end-of-the-world/alien invader/monster/mutated species movies from the 1950s. However, this movie is one of the few that’s good. The ants are big and dangerous – naturally – and they are threatening the future of mankind. 

That’s nice, but what does this movie and its monster ants have in common with Brood X of the cicadas? It comes down to the sound they make. The atomic ants in the movie sound a lot like a swarm of cicadas. The movie was even nominated for an Academy Award for special effects, and the ant noise was one of the reasons why. It bears a creepy resemblance to the sound the cicadas make. Or will make.

Just for the record, and to put your mind at ease, the cicadas, the 17-year variety, are real, don’t threaten mankind, and are completely harmless, but they are kind of sci-fi in their own right.

The movie producers, in the days before digital media, combined recorded sounds, including tree frog sounds and various recorded bird songs, and used old-fashioned analog sound mixers to develop the sound for the ants. Tell me if you disagree, but they sound a lot like the thousands of cicadas that will be coming to your neighborhood.

You will notice Brood X. They’re the 17-year variety, with billions in the Mid-Atlantic, and they have been nesting, growing and preparing for their big emergence.

The last time we saw them was 2004. Indeed, I remember all of their outings that have occurred in my lifetime, going back to 1970. I was in the sixth grade and clearly remember rounding the bases in a Little League game at Glasgow Junior High School in Falls Church and hearing the crunch-crunch sound they made under our cleats. We weren’t trying to stomp on them; it’s just that they were everywhere. Oh, and they would fly right into your face, too. They don’t bite. They are harmless, but their guidance systems aren’t so good.

You’ve probably seen some coverage of these little beasties already. You will see more. But here is how they work. When they emerge in a few weeks, they’ll crawl out of the ground where they’ve been living for 17 years (in a larval state most of this time), spread their wings and head for the skies. They’ll mate, the males will die once their job is done, the females will lay eggs in trees and bushes, and then they, too, will die.

The larva will mature for a few weeks, fall to the ground and then burrow in about 18 inches or so and wait out the next 17 years – until, as full-fledged cicadas, they will repeat the cycle in 2038. I plan to be here for that one, too.

Cicadas look a little primordial, with big, red luminescent eyes, skeletal-like wings, and, yes, that noise. They want to find a mate, so they have to be heard.

Cicadas prompt something of an underground following. For example, in Washington you can get jellied cicadas, left over from the last brood, on cocktail spears added to your drink. They’re perfectly safe to eat. Also, you can expect several restaurants to serve them as an appetizer or as a meal. They’re cooked and perfectly safe to eat.

During their last outing, in 2004, I was tempted to order some of these critters as an appetizer. Maybe this year, older and wiser, and eager just to say I’ve eaten some, I’ll try them – while no doubt bringing to mind the creepy sound of the giant ants from “Them.”

David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.

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