Cicada Drama

Please say the title of this post aloud as would Sir David Attenborough: with every “a” a long vowel. Cicahdah Drahmah. I can’t help but giggle when he hosts the periodical cicada segment of Planet Earth. And if you love David Attenborough’s nature broadcasts, take a look-see at this poem: Sir David Attenborough, I Think I Love You, by Rita Orrell in The Hopper literary journal. I think I love it. (I know I do.)

The Drama:
Yesterday I was under our sugar maple trying to photograph the butterflies slurping my rotten apple on a string (I’ll explain later), when I heard a cicada distress call. You’ve heard this, right? When a cicada flies to escape a bird—usually from tree to tree—and grinds a broken but super-loud ratchet on one pitch? It means DON’T EAT ME DON’T EAT ME DON’T EAT ME.

And there on my front porch was a cicada-killer wasp killing a cicada. A huge, dogday cicada. The wasp was enormous, but still half the length of the cicada. I’d never seen a cicada-killer before, but I knew what it was, and I knew that my big, beautiful cicada was already toast. It screamed.

By jumping to the porch, I interrupted the struggle, but the wasp had apparently injected the full portion of paralyzing venom. The wasp flew to the rail, looked around, and split. The cicada screamed another second or two, and then was silent.

Had I not bumbled the battle, I would have gotten to see her wrangle (drag? fly?) the paralyzed cicada to her burrow (where is it?). I would not have seen what happens next: when she would lay one egg “under the left or right second leg of the cicada.” Nor thankfully, would I have seen what happens when the larva hatched, found the puncture wound, and crawled inside for a massive, marathon first meal. All of this drama would happen, you realize, while the cicada is still alive and cannot move.

I really hope that part of the paralysis package is the bonus of not being able to feel pain. This is the kind of thing that drove Darwin nuts.

The wasp did not return. I watched. The ants found the cicada pronto, but I didn’t want him to be eaten alive by ants (though it would be quicker than getting eaten slowly by one wasp larva). So, I moved it to the windowsill. No reaction. Those compound eye bubbles and the little eyes in between: could he see me? Could he hear me? Could he feel it when I lifted him by both wings?

I know he’s a he because he sang the distress call. Females don’t sing, even when they are chased by cicada-killers.

I’d hoped a bird would eat him, or maybe a chipmunk or squirrel, but the porch was predator-free the rest of the day. This morning, when I found him still on the sill, still ant-free, still with no response to gentle pokes, I put him in the freezer. I have to believe this is the most humane way to go.

And then I will pin him to a board as Exhibit C, for cicada. He’ll be my specimen for Show and Tell. Nice contrast with the smaller periodical cicadas (a la David Attenborough), and with different coloration.

I think this is a Tibicen pruinosus but I’m happy to hear from an expert.

cicada paralyzed

Quote is from:
10 Facts About Cicada Killer Wasps at

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