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The Garden of Earthly Delights... and Bugs



Giant Moths and Flying Shrimp

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A Brief Treatise on Flying Shrimp

[Editor's note: Spring 2004 saw the return of the "brood X" 17-year cicadas, which occurred in a wide area of the northeast US.  This article was written during that period.  In 1987, during the previous cycle, Fred and his family were in Alaska, where there was no indication of cicadas although spring breakup was memorable.]

Fred Herring's wife thinks that cicadas, sometimes mistakenly called 17-year locusts, resemble shrimp.  She suspects that some people don't like the taste or texture of shrimp because they feel they are eating bugs.  So naturally, at least to Fred's way of thinking, cicadas might be called "flying shrimp."

There's been a rash of newspaper articles this spring about various culinary treatments for cicadas, including deep frying, sauteing, and dipping in chocolate, and at least one connoisseur has likened their taste to shrimp. Fred, who likes shrimp, does not intend to find out.

Of course, shrimp are not on a 17-year cycle, or if they are, it is not one as noticeable as the cicada's.  Nevertheless, in nature's economy there's no such thing as a free lunch, so it may be safe to assume that there are other organisms whose populations wax and wane in phase with the cicada's, such as squirrels and songbirds.  Too bad it's not telemarketers; then they'd only be a nuisance once in a very long while, and there might be time between one surfacing and the next for science to come up with a solution.

Fred has developed a grudging respect and even a fondness for cicadas.  The little critters seem benign enough, once you get past their red eyes and ubiquitous presence. Understanding that they will not hurt you may keep you from driving off the road when one blows in through the car window.  Their omnipresent din brings to mind a slipping fan belt or a pulley with a warn bearing.

Fred's wife, who may be doing an inordinate amount of meditating on cicadas herself, thinks that they're like any other 17-year-olds.  They are driven by an unconscious hormonal imperative, under which they bumble along wrapped up in themselves, jostling others while meaning no harm, dependent on their herd instinct to survive, at least socially, and making a lot of noise without regard for their surroundings. In other words, you don't want to share the road with them.

If you are lucky enough to live within the cicadas' range, you can draw your own lessons from their visitation.  If nothing else, they give us the chance to reflect on how long 17 years really is.  Your toddler will be graduating high school the next time they appear, and you will be 17 years further along life's road.  Would you have surfaced this spring after 17 years in your cozy underground burrow if you knew what was in store - post 9/11 politics, Iraq, double-dollar gas prices?  And the cicadas do it all for love!

Frankly, you don't really need to come to terms with cicadas if you can just stay indoors for a few weeks.  After that you're off the hook for another 17 years.

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Giant Moths

Outside Fred's neighbor's door, Polyphemous moths steal  
the show from the Biblical plague of 17-year cicadas

Note the two cicada shells in one of the pictures.