Resurrection song: the unusual life cycle of these insects has long inspired the human psyche.
The most charismatic and identifiable of the Hemiptera--the insects with sucking mouthparts, the "true bugs"--are the cicadas. They are larger and noisier than their relatives, the aphids, scale insects, leafhoppers, and spittlebugs. For many of us, the ear-piercing whine of the male dog-day cicada, often wrongly identified as the hum of electric transmission wires, defines late summer. These calls are produced by males to attract females during the short above-ground portion of their lives.
But their calls are not the main reason cicadas have a special place in folklore. These insects spend the vast majority of their life cycle feeding underground, sucking sap from tree roots. Periodical cicadas in particular, appropriately named Magicicada, spend either 13 or 17 years (depending on the species) feeding, before "magically" appearing above ground. They emerge in huge numbers solely for the purpose of reproduction.
Their transformation from rather drab, grotesque grubs into brightly coloured winged insects has inspired the human psyche for centuries. Cicadas have been symbols of life-after-death, resurrection, rebirth, and immortality in cultures as distinct as the ancient Chinese and the Hopi Indians of the American southwest. During China's Han dynasty, it was customary to place a jade amulet made in the shape of a cicada on a corpse's tongue before burial--a symbol of hope for renewed life.
CHRIS DARLING is senior curator in the Entomology section of the ROM's Department of Natural History.