The small country town that I grew up in in southern Wisconsin, had its streets lined with large stately maple and elm trees. Their huge dark trunks were always a fun place to explore. I would slowly investigate the deep crevices of their bark as I moved around each tree in front of the house.
Black ants, some going up, some going down. Some carrying a piece of leaf or dead insect and some still searching.
Also hiding in the bark may be a moth, junebug or a spider or maybe even a curious looking stick bug. These beautiful big trees were the home for many different kinds of insects.
I was doing this one August summer day with my face not 6 inches from the trunk when I was startled by an insect I had never seen before. Their hard-shelled, tan colored bug was the size of a man's thumb-nail but looked stiff. When it didn't move I slowly touched it with my finger and to my surprise it dropped to the ground. I thought it was dead so I picked it up and I could see that it was just the shell of a large wingless bug. It was completely hollow and didn't weigh anymore than a small feather. I gently cupped the corpse in my hand and ran over to the neighbor man who was working in his garden. Maybe he could help solve my mystery.
"Oh yah! I know what that is." He said. "Cicada!"
"What's a cicada?" I asked on the chance he might know more. He was a great help in the past whenever I had a question about a butterfly, bird or a flower in his garden. Many of my childhood wildlife questions were answered for me by Gordon. He was the manager for the local farmer's co-op in our town and it seemed to this small boy, that he had all the answers to all my questions.
"Listen!" He told me and looked towards the tops of the tall trees. "Do you hear that loud, high-pitched buzzing?"
"Sure do, how could I miss it?" The buzzing seemed to go on for 10 seconds or so before slowly fading away.
"That's a cicada making that sound."
"Oh! Well, how does such a small bug like the one in my hand make such a loud sound?" I asked. His response puzzled me even more when he stated, it doesn't!
"What do ya mean, it doesn't?"
"Well, what you have there in your hand is just the dry, dead outer skin of the cicada. What you have is the bug when it comes up out of the ground and crawls up the tree trunk and clings there with its sharp feet. After a while of drying, a large, fat dark blue-green insect crawls out of its old shell. He will crawl a ways on the bark then quietly wait for his large clear wings to dry. Then off he goes to spend the rest of the summer singing from the high branches in the big trees."
"Thanks!" I told him as I turned to go look for another.
"Wait!" he snapped. "That's not all."
I couldn't believe there was more. I though my great mystery had been solved.
He went on to tell me that the cicada that crawled up out of the ground may have been waiting there for 17 years before the timing was right. That's why they are sometimes called the 17 year locust.
I was again awestruck to get so much information about the skin of the new bug. I wanted to see one in the worst way but how? They stay hidden in the thick leaves of the highest branches.
I ran over to the nearest tree as fast as my red-ball jets could take me, and began searching for another dried cicada skin. It didn't take long to find 3 or 4 more and I ran to the next tree. Here I found several more before I got real lucky and found one with the new bug still there. Its large wings were shriveled and didn't look so large to me.
I watched that big bug for over a half hour and saw its small shriveled wings slowly change into long shiny, clear wings. Then he crawled up the trunk a short ways, stretched his new wings and off he went. He disappeared high up in the trees. Wow! What a cool show that was and I didn't have to climb up one of those huge trees to see one. Which is just what I had kinda planned on doing.
Now, whenever I hear the first cicada each August, its loud buzzing takes me back to those warm August days and the curious boy in that small country town in southern Wisconsin.
Note: the cicada feeds on the young tender leaves of the tree then lays its tiny eggs in the end of a small twig. The twig will die and fall to the ground. The eggs will live in the ground. They hatch into nymphs which feed on the roots before emerging after many years to crawl up the tree trunk. From here the 1- 2 inch long adult cicada will appear and the long cycle of life continues.
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