The last time Washington’s famous cicadas emerged from the ground, in 1987, Smithsonian entomologist Nathan Erwin took some revealing photos of them. The shots confirm long-held beliefs about these little creatures: They’re winged, they’re beady-eyed, and they’re creative when it comes to sex.
“Here’s two cicadas linked together back-to-back,” says Erwin, pointing to the graphic image on a computer inside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “Their genitalia are at the tips of their abdomens.”
“I have another image,” he adds, “where they’re kind of side-by-side.” In yet another shot, the insects seem to be doing it doggy-style.
A new generation of Magicicada bugs—Brood X—will be renewing its regularly scheduled orgy over the next two to six weeks. Parks and yards from New York to Georgia to Illinois will become one giant hookup scene. These bugs swarm for sex.
“The way it works, it’s really pretty sweet, in terms of invertebrate behavior,” says University of Maryland entomologist Mike Raupp.
Come mating time, male cicadas instinctively serenade the females, using sound-producing organs called tymbals, to lure potential sex partners. Often, the males sing together in groups—kind of like boy bands, only less annoying. When chirping persistently, studies show, a chorus of cicadas can reach 100 decibels.
“The males will get together in a treetop. They start singing. You know there’s a party going on,” Raupp explains. “Females show up, start checkin’ out the guys.”
Of course, getting lucky isn’t easy, even for cicadas. As if avoiding predators weren’t stressful enough, there’s the matter of picking the right partner. “The first challenge is to find a member of your species,” Raupp says. This spring, three Magicicada species—septendecim, septendecula, and cassini—will emerge simultaneously. All the species, which emerge from the ground every 17 years, naturally prefer to stick to their own kind. But interspecies mating does occur in some high-density populations, Raupp notes. “You don’t want to mate with another species,” he warns. “Man, that’s just a waste of your precious eggs and sperm.”
For cicadas, the hookup scene in area trees and shrubs isn’t altogether different from the human meat market at Sign of the Whale: Females are often quite choosy, rejecting courting males with apparent ease, scientists say. Males, meanwhile, will fuck just about anything. “Males are not thought to be picky,” says University of Connecticut entomologist John Cooley, who’s studied the sexual habits of cicadas for the past decade. “[M]ales will indeed court anything,” Cooley says, including “other males, ovipositing females, shed skins, et cetera.”
Unwanted sexual advances usually don’t go very far, however. “A cicada will kick with its legs, or ‘flap off’ using its wings, any annoying pest cicada that touches it,” says Cooley. “Generally, the only cicadas that will tolerate contact by another cicada are receptive females—everybody else seems to get the flap-off.”
But when the insects actually succeed in having sex—well, you don’t call ’em Magicicada for nothing. Studies have shown that cicada sex often lasts for hours. “Average copulation lengths,” says Cooley, “seem to be about three hours or so.”
For cicadas, as for humans, the act of reproduction involves a lock-and-key-style copulation: The male inserts his “aedeagus” into the female’s “bursa copulatrix” in an attempt to fertilize her eggs. The manner in which he mounts her is anything but missionary. “Since the cicadas walk, fall, and sometimes even fly while copulating, the position they end up in can be quite variable,” says Cooley.
Once the male injects his mounted female with his seminal fluid, he sometimes tops it off with a “copulatory plug,” consisting of additional dried ejaculate, intended to block off her bursa from future sexual encounters. Not that this paternity-insurance stunt actually works. “It doesn’t seem to stop males from trying again,” notes Cooley.
But studies have shown that females aren’t inclined to fuck around afterward, anyway. Instead, females “become unreceptive after mating,” Cooley says. “Mated females do not actively seek additional mating opportunities, nor are they sexually attractive to males,” he says. The few females that do solicit second matings usually were interrupted during sex the first time, he adds. Typically, though, lady cicadas have sex only once.
Males, meanwhile, “will try as much as they can,” Cooley says, “though some males will get several mates, and some none.”
“Males are relentless about courting any object that might be a potential mate,” he says, “because they can’t afford to miss a chance.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Emily Flake.