One winters day the ants were drying their store of grain when they were approached by a cicada. Could I please beg a few grains to eat, Im so hungry and there is no food to be found. Why didnt you think of that in the summer when there was plenty of food to be gathered for the winter? replied the ants. Oh, said the cicada, I was much too busy singing my wonderful songs! Well now you can dance instead of sing! Go away, was the ants angry reply.
This well-known fable introduces us to the cicada, a most interesting insect, but rather misses out on the differences between cicadas and ants. Ants do, indeed, store food for the winter but the reason why cicadas dont is very simple. They die in the autumn. Apart from that they are sap-suckers, that is, the mouth parts are adapted for puncturing the bark of the tree and sucking the sap. They have no use for solid food. The fable further leads us to believe that whilst the ants are good, careful, hard workers, cicadas are wasters who spend all their time hedonistically singing their lives away. Lets have a look at the truth of the matter.
The cicada belongs to the sub-order of insects, homoptera. The adult insects, which look a bit like oversized house-flies, have shiny transparent wings (rather like stained glass) and very short antennae. The adult males have membranes, tymbals, on the sides of the abdomen, which can be vibrated to produce the famous song. The purpose of the song is to attract a female for mating. Those of you who have a chance to visit a pineta or pine forest, in June, July or August, will know just how deafening the cicadas songs can be. Moreover, if you were to raise your eyes to the tops of the pine trees at dusk you would see hundreds, if not thousands of the insects the males singing from the topmost twigs and the females flying around trying to answer their mating call. After successfully mating, the female uses her long ovipositor to lay eggs in the bark or twigs of the tree. On hatching, the nymphs fall to the ground and the main part of the cicadas life begins.
The nymphs are built like miniature earth movers. The front pair of legs is relatively large and is used to burrow through the soil as the creature searches for the roots of the tree. It clings to the root and sucks its sustenance. This burrowing and feeding lasts for a number of years. European cicadas can spend three or more years underground growing towards maturity; there is one American species which lives in this way for 17 years. When the fully-grown nymph is ready for its final metamorphosis into the adult form, it emerges from the soil, climbs up a metre or so on the trunk of the tree, or any other upright object, and the adult emerges. An hour or two later, usually in the early morning, when the wings have hardened, it flies up to find a singing perch, in the case of males, or to fly around in search of a mate, in the case of the females. Thus the life cycle is concluded.
All this burrowing by the immature cicada not only aerates the soil but also helps rainwater to penetrate more easily. Thus the trees are helped in return for providing sustenance.
The cicada, therefore, is a very hard and useful worker, burrowing and feeding alone for years longer than any individual ant, which has a life cycle of only a few months and the benefit of living in a caring community. So Mr Aesops pretty tale is very unfair to the cicadas. In the autumn and winter months they are down there working away towards an eventual final summer of just singing and reproducing. There is much more to these insects than meets the eye, or ears!