Arousing themselves from a 17-year pastoral torpor, the periodical cicadas are at once fearsome and fascinating. Brood II of Magicicada septendecim–as polite academic society calls this bug genus–is invading Gotham’s city limits by the billions. Staten Island is its long established ground zero, and the Staten Island Museum in St. George has appropriately dedicated the awesome exhibit, “They’re Baaack! Return of the 17-year Cicadas.”
The emergence of the periodical cicada is astonishing, but not new. Although colloquially called “locusts,” these harmless, and defenseless, critters bear no relation to those devouring pests of biblical infamy. The periodical also stands apart from some 2500 other known species of cicada worldwide inasmuch as it’s unique to the eastern United States. And the din of the male’s love song, irresistible to females of its kind, was audible to 19th-century sailors off Staten Island.
Indeed, the regularly scheduled arrival and disappearance since time immemorial of our bug–Brood II, out of some twenty-odd 17- and 13-year periodical cicada broods–should rank it right up there with the region’s longest standing natural heritage themes. Here’s some select buzz from Brood II as our bug of the hour trended in the media of earlier emergence years.
In late May of this year the local newspaper warned folks in Elizabeth-Town (today’s Elizabeth), New Jersey, about the summer’s “periodical return of the locusts.” Residents were told to “expect swarms of those devouring insects, they appearing very numerous in the ground already.”
This year, Poughkeepsie, New York, was the locus of “locust” focus. Baffled accounts of the cicada emergence migrated verbatim from paper to paper throughout the northeast: “Our fields, our orchards and our woodlands, now swarm with Locusts, and indeed wherever trees are to be found, there they resort: but in the woods, they are the most numerous.”
By late August, a naturalist named Sterne explained these so-called “American Locusts” in a widely circulated scholarly article. He described the male’s “kind of white bladder like a piper’s windbag, or bellows, which serves as a musical instrument, for raising a note, much like the croaking of a frog.” Sterne added a more disconcerting, albeit scientific, observation that the male cicadas “will sing several minutes after their heads are pulled off,” or indeed after dismemberment of “all parts…from the part supporting the musical organ, and singing will be continued in the usual way, about a minute.”
This year, the Rhode-Island American reported the cicada spectacle “in the neighborhood of N. York, [where] they have been discovered in large quantities, issuing from the ground at night and crawling upon the trees, the day after having exchanged their shell for wings and legs.” The same New England paper noted its song as “a murmuring, mournful sound…heard from morning till night.”
The New-Jersey Eagle likened Brood II’s exhibition to “one of the ten plagues of Egypt,” and to “Pharaoh and his magicians contending against Moses and the children of Israel.” However the newspaper conceded to readers, “no other complaint to make of them as yet, excepting their pertinacious and monotonous croaking.”
Brood II couldn’t have done better with a press agent this year. One observer pointed out the “W”-shaped splay of veins on the bug’s forewings, which superstitious folk during the Revolution took to imply “War and Want.” The same writer “remember[ed] them in 1826 and 1809–his father and grandfather remembered them in 1792 and 1775–his grandfather in 1758.”
The Pittsfield Sun from Massachusetts cited this as the “‘Locust year’–it being seventeen years since they have had a ‘mass meeting’.” Famous Massachusetts writer Henry David Thoreau happened to be living on Staten Island during this emergence. In a letter to his mother, he asked, “Pray, have you the seventeen-year locust in Concord?…Their din is heard by those who sail along the shore from the distant woods,–Phar-r-r-aoh. Phar-r-r-aoh.”
Major Delafield, President of the Lyceum of Natural History (which later became the New York Academy of Sciences), “received letters on some specimens of the Cicada Septendecim, from Staten Island.” However, a New-York Times report about “the recent shower of toads” witnessed in Port Jervis, New York, might have stolen a bit of the insect’s thunder.
A New-York Times writer waxed poetic in describing the 17-year cicada’s transformation: “The body takes a darker tint, and the red eyes that distinguish this species of harvest-fly gleam brightly. The insect is fully prepared for its apotheosis; it knows exactly what to do, and before its wings can bear it, begins to travel up the trunk of any tree near-by to join the frivolous band of its fellows that are making the upper air tremble with their love notes.”
This year, a New Yorker cited the ingenuity of a Swiss entrepreneur who had produced a profitable machine-lubricating oil by industrially-squishing June bugs. Writing to the New-York Times, he suggested a potential gross natural product of our own: “Our cicada…is not the plump, oily thing that will yield many gallons of oil to the ton, but it may be found to have some use…Here is a chance for the S.P.C.A. [Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals], which has assumed in this city a paternal care for cats and dogs…[to] compound and patent a cicada biscuit and extend to it the power of its recommendation.”
In late May of this year, the timely arrival of “the seventeen-year raider” prompted the New York Times to point up the exaggerated dread “of our home-grown pests” when compared to “such foreign importations as the brown-tail moth and the gypsy moth.” The paper cited C.L. Mariatt, the U.S. Bureau of Entomology Chief, from a National Geographic Magazine article: “The United States is the only great power without protection from the importation of insect-infested or diseased plant stock…Diseased live-stock may be, and are, excluded by law, but diseased or insect-infested plants have no bar against their introduction.”
“Locusts don’t come under my jurisdiction,” a police captain reiterated to each new call. The 17-year cicadas had emerged In Westerleigh, Staten Island, where some horrified women were insisting he send out a squad at once to destroy the pests. They then called the Health Department, but found its Superintendent just as useless as the police captain. All the while, the cicadas sustained their maddening drone, which finally prompted someone to trip a fire alarm. The women resumed “smashing away at groups of locusts which were clinging to tree trunks and branches.” In short time, three fire engines did race to the scene, where the besieged women “appealed to the firemen to help them, but failed to get aid.” There was no fire, of course, save for the unified, shrill song of the cicadas inflaming the air. The women turned to the reserves of police who had also arrived in tow. The detectives came forward, but only to demand which of the ladies had thrown that fire alarm.
By January 22 of this year, 82-year-old William T. Davis, had seen four emergences of the periodical cicada in his lifetime. The entomologist, who had founded the institution that is now the Staten Island Museum, reasonably anticipated witnessing a fifth that May. The punctual insects poured out of the earth right on schedule, only to find their most indefatigable champion had died but a few months before. They were not silent.
Various newspapers including New-Jersey Journal, May 23, 1792;
Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, June 27, 1809.
American Eagle, August 23, 1809.
Rhode-Island American and Providence Gazette, June 2, 1826.
N. Jersey Eagle, as cited in the Rhode-Island Republican, June 22, 1826.
Farmer’s Cabinet, “The Seventeen Year Locust,” June 2, 1843.
Pittsfield Sun, June 8, 1843.
Thoreau, Henry David, letter to his mother from Staten Island, July 7, 1843; Years of Discipline, p. 89-90.
New-York Times, City Intelligence, “Lyceum of Natural History,” June 13, 1860.
New-York Times, “The Dry Cicada,” June 24, 1877.
New-York Times, “Wanted, A Use for Cicadas,” June 22, 1894.
New York Times, “Seventeen-Year Locusts Here; Moths Even Worse,” May 28, 1911.
New York Times, “Staten Island Besieged,” June 10, 1928, p. 13.