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What’s the buzz about?

by Nelson Holmes

HUERFANO- So you’re driving down a county road, plume of dust issuing from under your rear tires, when you hear it; a disconcerting buzzing sound.  You think, only something mechanical could create a noise like this.  Your gaze turns to the heavens, hoping the sound doesn’t presage a UFO on some proctological mission.  Well, you have nothing to fear, the source of the sound is the cicada; the largest member of the “sap-sucking” family of insects (which include aphids, leafhoppers and spittlebugs) found in Colorado.

    These little maestros of white noise start out as silent nymphs living underground, feeding on the roots of plants, yet causing little damage.  Not what one would describe as “cuddly,” cicada nymphs are hunchbacked little trolls who pull themselves through the soil with burly forelegs. 

    Though the specifics are still hazy to science, it is believed that cicadas in Colorado may take two to five years to develop.  When mature, the nymphs climb out of the soil onto whatever is handy and begin the process of departing their skin.  This task they complete by splitting, then pulling themselves from, their outgrown casing.  The cicada then, literally, hangs out, pumping blood to extend the wings.  Soon the cicada flies away leaving its exoskeletal baggage behind. 

    “So, what of that infernal racket?” you ask.  Well that “racket” is an earnestly sung ballad of love and devotion to the cicada.  The male cicada has a pair of drum-like organs called tymbals affixed to his abdomen.  By contracting and releasing muscles the cicada makes the tymbals sing, and with the aid of an air sac in the abdomen acting as a resonator, the volume becomes incredible.  After their emergence the cicadas will be present for four to six weeks in the summer.  Females will lay their eggs on plants and twigs from which the young hatch and go quickly to ground to spend their nymphal years munching roots and tubers.

    The largest species is the “Dog Day” cicada or Tibicen dealbatus found in the south east of the state.  This cicada loves cottonwoods and maples and is particularly prevalent in the Arkansas River valley.  The most common cicada is Putnam’s Cicada which produces a metallic sound similar to two coins being struck together.  My favorite is the grey-black Cactus Dodger which loves the cholla.  This is the beast that produces the shrillest, most otherworldly, hum of the bunch.

    Now, to have fun with cicadas try this.  When friends visit from out of state or the ”big city” take them on hikes in the heat of the day and when they ask about the humming noise look at them with a serious face and ask “what hum?” Or, offer up a slightly crazed look and just say folks round here have sworn to never mention the noise, ever.  Better yet, tell them the noise issues from really angry rattlesnakes… always freaks them out!