One of the harbingers of summer in Japan is the common cicada or ‘semi’ in Japanese. Arguably worse than the stifling humidity and blazing heat, this little critter emerges from the earth to start its deafening song just after the rainy season has finished. Like the fleeting cherry blossom in spring, the cicada is a symbol of evanescence due to its short lifespan.
Although it looks like what we would be tempted to call a locust, the cicada is actually unrelated. For the entomologists among us, cicadas are actually related to leafhoppers and spittlebugs, which have a noticeably cooler-sounding name!
As you might guess, spittlebugs do something in the way of spewing out froth that resembles spit, which is used for many purposes, such as insulation and moisture. Cicadas too are capable of spitting, although you’ve likely never seen one do so. It tends to only be used in defence, squirting a waste liquid and emitting a rather sharp noise, usually followed by flying off in frustration. Its perfect mating call was just ruined, after all!
A rattlesnake of the trees, I thought.
My first encounter with a cicada was after coming to Japan. In temperate Britain, we don’t get much in the way of warm-weather insects. Naturally I was quite surprised to hear the screeching, scratching sounds one summer morning while walking to volunteer care home at which I was stationed.
Despite knowing them first in Japan though, my most vivid memory was encountering one in the jungles of Borneo. I was lost after wandering off a hiking trail in search of a waterfall and the sun was creeping down towards the horizon. Paranoid about snakes in the leaf litter and poisonous spiders ready to jump out at me, I got the fright of my life when a nearby cicada starting suddenly buzzing loudly, quite unlike anything I’d heard in Japan. I didn’t recognise what it was at first for the piercing noise and could only imagine something sharp and harmful nearby emitting its warning call.
But cicada are generally harmless. A short blast of waste goo, or if you’re unlucky, you might get stabbed with its proboscis. It’s used for sucking the sap from trees (which incidentally is where you’ll find most of them), but given enough time resting on your body, they might make a plunge for the ‘sap’ flowing throughout your veins. Handle carefully! As with most creatures though, they should be more afraid of us than we are of them.
But what of the cicada’s song? Male cicadas are the ones making the noise. They use a tymbal – a corrugated exoskeleton – quite in contrast to crickets which rub their legs together (which is called ‘stridulation’). They are the loudest insects in the world, using their hollow abdomen to amplify sound and produce noise up to 120 decibels. They would deafen themselves if it weren’t for their ability to disable their hearing mechanisms, and can deafen humans too if they happen to sing right by your ear! The song is a mating call, distinct to each species to avoid attracting the wrong type of ladybugs.
Due to their short lifespan, if you search around your local park, you’re likely to find the well-formed husks they leave behind when growing. You may even mistake the husk for an actual insect – they are that realistic! Kids like to collect them in the summer months, as well as other cool critters like stag beetles and frogs, so don’t be surprised if you see some locals youngsters poking around the trees with nets.
They are actually quite tricky to locate though, as the pitch is constant and they have a sneaky habit of lowering it just when you’re close, meaning the noise of other nearby cicadas catches your attention. They also blend pretty well into the bark of trees they are sucking on. Don’t give up though. It’s quite satisfying to hear the sharp pip-crackle when they fly off after being discovered!