(Or Ode to Ecology Part 2)
We have a cicada plague* at home. The house we rent is bordered on two sides by a tiny patch of remnant eucalypt woodland. It is infested with cicadas, which started singing here around September. At first it was an occasional chirp, almost unnoticeable. But the heat of the last few of weeks means the chorus has swelled. At peak cicada, we can no longer hear traffic on the Hume Freeway, about 300 metres away. Thankfully, cicada chatter is much less offensive to the ear…although some claim it can damage your hearing, and the cicada boom has unfortunately resulted in the disappearance of most of the birds we see very morning.
This morning, while getting ready for work, I caught sight of some activity through a window. A cicada was dancing upside down in mid-air, ensnared in a spider’s web. The spider** made its usual swift scuttle toward the commotion…and then stopped. Cicada squirmed and Spider looked on hesitantly. Struggling with prey of equal match is an expensive use of energy.
Spider took another tentative step forward, but Cicada had already freed itself. Sigh.
As I turned away, my eye was drawn to another scuffle on a tree next to the balcony – this time, two cicadas jostled briefly until one flew away. It was either two males, competing for the same singing position, or a male failing to impress a female with his advances.
Further down the trunk, two pairs of lovestruck teenagers were sitting together. Trying to impress their mates, the males took turns to sing, abdomens pumping up and down to reveal the flash of gold underneath their sombre attire. The male would edge forward slowly, then reach out and lightly tap the female in front of him with his front leg.
Eventually, one got lucky.
Over a neighbouring branch, a paper wasp circled in and landed, searching for food. It skated around for a few seconds, and then took off empty-handed.
Polistes species are found worldwide and are responsible for the neat little paper honeycombs you find hanging from ceilings and rafters. They also have a characteristic flight, dangling their supermodel legs instead of holding them close to their body, which makes them easy to identify on the wing.
A flamboyant hairy caterpillar, with a prominent white heart painted on its back, appeared hurriedly from under a piece of bark near to where the wasp had just taken off. Lasiocampidae go by various common names, including eggar, snout, lappet or tent caterpillar moths. This one is likely a Pinara species, a mysterious genus for which there is little information and few recorded sightings.
The caterpillar hurried straight down the trunk, within millimetres of the angsty cicadas. It headed downwards until its cryptic colouring, perfectly matched to the tree trunk, became invisible.
In Plato’s classic text Phaedrus, Socrates uses a powerful metaphor, the cicada myth, to teach young Phaedrus the importance of philosophy, truth and divine inspiration (i.e. knowledge). According to the story, cicadas are spies for the Muses, the nine Greek goddesses responsible for literature, science and the arts. Cicadas sang in the midday heat, tempting humans to fall into idle sleep instead of pursuing more ideal past-times, i.e. philosophy, literature, science, music or art. Those who resisted the temptation of idleness were reported favourably to the Muses.
“But if they see us discoursing, and like Odysseus sailing past them, deaf to their siren voices, they may perhaps, out of respect, give us of the gifts which they receive from the gods..”
So thank you, cicadas, for luring me outside for my morning nature fix. From now on, 10 minutes every day standing still with Nature, even if it’s in my own backyard. It won’t be wasted time – it will help me understand ecology: how nature works, how plants and animals interact, and how my presence affects them.
© Manu Saunders 2015