The Plight of the Cicada: The Story of the Saddest Insect on Earth

Each year, around late July, the cicada returns to Seoul. This morning on the drive to work, I noticed that they’ve emerged from the ground and have began their brief journey to the treetops. Despite the minor annoyance of their noise, this makes me happy.

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I’m not a fan of insects. The vast majority of them disgust me. June bugs, for example, evoke a reaction in me that is not entirely unlike a six year old girl who just found a dead rat in her sock drawer. There’s something about most bugs that gives me the willies.

But the cicada is different. They’re a commonly found insect around the world, although they aren’t found in my home city of Halifax. My first time seeing one was only two years ago the week I arrived in Seoul. Massive, beady brown eyes, greenish black bodies and a buzzing sound that sounded like someone had just plugged in a malfunctioning electric razor.

It think my fondness for the little tree dwelling bug, has something to do with the futility of it’s existence. The majority of it’s life it spends as a nymph, burrowed underground in a hibernating state. In Korea, they spend between 7 and 15 years underground in this condition, barely alive, waiting. And then one summer they emerge from the ground, and begin a very slow walk crawl up the side of a tree, during which it sheds its shell several times. By the time it reaches the treetops, it is a fully grown adult, and begins it’s mating call.

In Korean, the cicada is called a maemi (매미), which sounds remarkably like the sound that they make to attract a mate.

And here’s the part that gets me: for three weeks it screams out for a lover, mates, and then dies. Often I’ve seen them crawling back down the tree to do so, the purpose of which eludes me. You’d think they’d just stay up their and enjoy the view before they die.

The Japanese also appreciate the evanescent nature of the ciacda. They consider it a symbol of reincarnation, the endless cycle of death and rebirth. I see it more of a pitiful tale of futility. It waits for seventeen years, enjoys a few moments of bliss (if indeed it even enjoys mating) and dies. If that’s not a depressing extended metaphor for life on Earth, I don’t know what is.

To make matters worse, the survival method of the ciada is simply their sheer numbers. Since they are so slow moving and don’t often use their wings, they are easily picked off by predators. But that doesn’t matter, because there are so damn many of them that the predatory population is soon full, and can’t eat anymore. The biological defence mechanism of satiation; a way of saying we don’t care, just eat us until you’re full. We’ll keep going.

So here’s to the cicada, insect of persistence in the face of hopelessness. I hope for these little critters that their three weeks of bliss are as enjoyable as insect copulation can be, before they once again disappear into the ground for another decade.

Here’s to you, little guys. Here’s to you.

Photo by Michael Johnstone

Photo by Michael Johnstone

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