Celia Rivenbark: Zombie cicadas are having the time of their lives

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 16, 2024

By Celia Rivenbark

If some chipper soul greets me with, “It’s a good day to have a good day!” I usually just punch ‘em in the throat and keep moving. Not today, Satan. Today is a good day because…we’re not cicadas.

Yes, the underground creatures we love to complain about (“so noisy!”) and whose sad husks we flick off tree bark with zero ceremony. Cicadas don’t inspire much of anything except a grudging appreciation for their lacy wings. Yep, that’s about it.

We don’t have a lot good to say about the cicadas, whose emergence from underground after 13 to 17 years (depending on where you live) is dutifully documented by scientists. At best, cicadas are a freak of nature, something to be tolerated until its merciful end, rather like RFK Jr.’s presidential campaign. Yes, yes, we think. It will all end soon enough.

Naturalists tell us that very soon billions of cicadas will emerge from underground, noisily seek a proper mate for procreation — just like they always do — and, well, one more thing: This time, more than a few will have a fungus that makes their genitalia fall off their bodies leaving in its place a whitish globby gumdrop of spores that scientists have compared to “a child’s pencil eraser.”

Wait. What?!?!?

Despite this, scientists told CNN, the infected cicadas still attempt to mate with gusto! Apparently, this is because the fungus makes them hypersexual. The fact they no longer have any, er, functioning parts seems not to matter a whit.

And here’s where, unlike RFK Jr.’s presidential campaign, it gets really interesting.

Dr. John Cooley, an associate professor of evolutionary biology at UConn told CNN: “Periodical cicadas have interlocking genitalia. So when they pull apart, guess what happens? Rip! And then there’s a cicada walking around with someone else’s genitals stuck to them.”

Ha! And you thought you had a bad Tinder date.

Not only does the cicada lose its naughties, but also it gains an abdomen full of fungal spores! Through it all, the cicada is basically high on the fungus and flies about spreading spores as one scientist observed “like a salt shaker of death.”

One can only assume this works in tandem with a “pepper grinder of selfishness and greed” but that’s purely non-scientific conjecture on my part.

The scientists repeatedly describe the infected blissed-out and junk-free cicadas’ behavior as “zombie like.” Although they lack the equipment to mate, the males chase the females with vigor and flirt with males to quickly spread the fungus to all concerned. Zombie style, the infected seek out others to infect and so it goes.

The cicadas buzz about in a high haze making bad decisions owing to their depleted condition. They are, as Aunt Verlie used to say, “happy as if they had good sense.” (If they were humans, they’d be the ones snapping up Melania Trump’s new fake gold Mother’s Day necklaces for $245.)

Plenty of folks enjoy eating cicadas and other insects but scientists warn that you may want to pass on dead ones that appear to have a pencil eraser where a stomach used to be.

“You don’t want to put those in your mouth,” said Dr. Matt Kasson, who teaches forest pathology at West Virginia University. Dr. Kasson is, I imagine, the author of a number of useful scholarly articles such as “Don’t Use a Hair Dryer While Taking a Bath” and “Don’t Give Your Social Security Number to A Nigerian Prince No Matter How Charming He May Seem.”

Actually, I think Dr. Kasson sounds like a hoot. His explanation for how these brutally injured and extremely high cicadas could still have the zest for procreation was priceless: “Everyone’s having a good time while they’re infected so I don’t imagine there’s much pain — maybe a desire to listen to the Grateful Dead…but no pain.”

Celia Rivenbark is a humor columnist and NYT-bestselling author. Write to her at celiarivenbark@gmail.com. This first appeared in NC Spin.com.