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June 20, 2024 47 mins

In this episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind, Rob and Joe explore the world of the periodical cicada, from their curious lifecycle to their mythological and culinary roles in human cultures. 

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Speaker 1 (00:03):
Welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind production of iHeartRadio.

Speaker 2 (00:12):
Hey, welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind. My name
is Robert Lamb.

Speaker 3 (00:16):
And I am Joe McCormick. And hey, Rob, you're back.
You've been out of the country.

Speaker 2 (00:21):
That's right. Yeah, me and the FAM just spent two
weeks in Japan so much fun. Highly recommend it, but
it also means that, yeah, we're back. I'm only on
my second day back and I'm still somewhat jet lagged,
So I'm going to apologize in advance for any extra
fumbles that I make today in handling our notes in

our recording.

Speaker 3 (00:43):
What's the time difference EUS Eastern to Japan?

Speaker 2 (00:47):
What it's like thirteen hours? I believe it's I was
constantly breaking my brain by pulling up the world clock
on my phone and figuring out exactly like where we
were and where back home was, and then all of
that's fallen apart since I've come back, and I'm attempting
to readjust.

Speaker 3 (01:06):
But it's like an almost perfect to day night inversion.

Speaker 2 (01:10):
Yeah, yeah, pretty much, and really was. It was easy,
easy enough to get used to it going over. It'sn't
just been much harder coming back.

Speaker 3 (01:21):
Well, folks. If you remember from before we were out
for a couple of weeks, we had a kind of
strange but I think good scheme where we broke right
in the middle of a series so we could jump
back in with part two of our talk about cicadas. Now,
of course it's been a while, so you might not
remember some of the things we talked about in part one,
But in that episode we discussed our personal experiences with cicadas.

We talked about finding their abandoned former exoskeletons after molting,
or just finding random body parts, wings, legs, and stuff
like that. Here and there, we talked about how cicadas
fit into the insect class as a member of the
so called true bugs, the Hymiptera, and we had a
digression on the etymological history of the word bug in

English referred to monsters and scarecrows before it actually referred
to insects. We talked about the physical characteristics of cicadas.
They're piercing and sucking mouthparts. They have this needle like
mouth called a rostrum, which they used to feed off
of Xylum sap from plant roots and then stems in

their adult stage. We talked about how they emit their
famous song, not by rubbing together wings or legs like
some other insects, but with dedicated organs called timbals, these
kind of corrugated drumheads on the sides of their bodies
that they can buckle and snap back and forth to
make a sound. We of course talked about their reproductive cycle,

with an early developmental stage taking place underground where they
feed on Xylum from plant roots, and then their emergence
as an adult into the air or above where they mate.
And then of course after they the females lay eggs
with this wonderful knife like ovipositor that they gouge into
twigs and soft tree branches to make little canyons for

their eggs to live in. And then finally we talked
about the periodical cicadas of North America that we have
here and we just recently had a big emergence in
our area. The periodical cicadas which emerge not every year everywhere,
as most cicadas do, but instead after bizarrely long periods

of underground development, so some go thirteen years before emerging,
some go seventeen years. And we discussed evolutionary pressures that
could have led to this adaptation. One hypothesis that we
talked about, and to be clear, this is not the
only one. There are other possible explanations in the mix,
and we might try to get into them in a
later part of the series. But one hypothesis we talked

about is that it prevents local predators and parasitoids from
adapting to cicadas as regular prey or host animals, because
once they're out, as I've read in multiple places, everything
eats them. Cicadas are nutritious, they have almost nothing in
the way of individual defenses, and there are a zillion

of them, so it's nature's buffet. But the idea is
if you only appear at weird, irregular time intervals, predators
can't come to depend on you, and there won't be
enough of them to eat all of you when you
do come out. So it's like if you had a
buffet that you didn't want too many people eating at
so you know, and it was delicious and you had

lots of food, but instead you just like were very
squirrely about what you're operating hours were.

Speaker 2 (04:44):
Yeah, Yeah, it's the the complete inversion of what you
would expect with some sort of a business model for
a restaurant, a buffet or anything that's like bringing in bodies.
You know, in this case want you want your audience.
You want the consumers to be taken off guard so
that they can't be ready for it. They can't ramp
up to meet this dietary bounty that occurs again, not

every year, but every thirteen or every seventeen years with
these periodical cicadas.

Speaker 3 (05:14):
But of course many species of cicadas are just annual cicadas,
and they do come out every year, and many things
do still eat them.

Speaker 2 (05:20):
That's right. But that leads to the big question, right, Joe,
Lots of things can eat them, We can eat them.
We'll probably get into that a little bit more in
a subsequent episode, But can they eat us? To question
that has garnered a lot of discussion of you.

Speaker 3 (05:37):
Yes, it's a wonderful question. It's a question people apparently
cannot stop asking. So if you go back through newspaper articles,
radio programs, all kinds of media that accompany these big
cicada booms whenever they happen, it seems readers and listeners
are always expressing concern that the cicadas will bite them

or sting them. And then maybe if people know a
bit more about their morphology, about the piercing and sucking
mouthparts rather than the chewing and tearing arrangement some other
bugs have, they might ask instead, will Cicada's stab their
needle like rostra into my veins and drain all my blood?
And yes, one historical newspaper article does discuss this possibility.

The short answer is no, no, no, this does not happen.
But it is kind of interesting to explore the way
this question keeps coming up over and over again, because
it turns out recent generations are not the first to
arrive at this question. People have been asking this for
a long time. So I was looking for sources on

this and I came across an article by an author
whose name always fills me with delight when I see it,
May Berenbaum. May Barnbaum is an American entomologist affiliated with
the University of Illinois. She has been recently and I
think still is editor in chief of PNAS, and we've
cross paths with her work a lot on stuff to

blow your mind because she has written a lot of
science based articles that cover I don't know, our kind
of beat like strange and funny questions about insects, but
with a scientifically informed perspective. And just one example is
I think we did an article of hers that was
talking about cases of bugs crawling inside people's bodies, stuff

like that. This particular article was called same Old Cicada Song,
and it was published in the magazine American Entomologist in
twenty twenty one, related to a big periodical cicada emergence
that year, specifically brood Now do we say brood X
or brood ten?

Speaker 2 (07:45):
I mean, I always read it in my head is
brute x, but of course it's brood ten.

Speaker 3 (07:49):
I think we should follow the Jason X convention though,
even though it you know, it's the tenth Jason movie,
but everybody says Jason X. So I think it should
be brood x brude X. It is so. In this article,
Barenbaum talks about the long history of media stories about
emerging cicada broods, and she goes way back into the

newspaper archives and finds a story from March first, eighteen
sixty in the New York Times. This would have been
only nine years after the paper was founded that begins
as follows the locust plague to reappear this year. You
know that's classic headline flair all caps locust plague about

insects that once again harm no one. So the article
goes on. Mister Gideon B. Smith communicates the following unpleasant
bit of entomological news through the National Intelligencer. The locusts
or cicada septin decim will appear very extensively this year,
occupying probably a larger surface of the country than those

of any other year. Now a note about referring to
them as locusts. We talked in the last episode about how,
of course cicadas are not locusts. Locusts are a type
of swarming grasshopper, and cicadas are not even especially closely
related to grasshoppers. They're both insects. But cicadas again are hymiptera.

They are the true bugs. But many of the popular
sources from the nineteenth century that discuss cicadas do refer
to them as locusts or sometimes with other common names
like harvest flies. But locust is very common, and because
of course locusts are associated with threats to crops, I
think this sort of bleeds over that, like calling incorrectly

calling cicada's locusts bleeds over into this idea that cicadas
themselves are a threat to crops, which they are generally.

Speaker 2 (09:45):
Not right, right, and making it far easier to confuse
yourself not only with accounts of actual locust based destruction,
but even like cultural biblical mentions of the locusts and
plagues of locusts.

Speaker 3 (10:00):
Exactly. Yeah. So after this, barren Baum goes on to
highlight another article that appeared in The Times a little
more than seventeen years after that first one, in June
eighteen seventy seven, for the seventeen year re emergence of
the same brood. This article was called the Dry Cicada,
and she brings up this article as the first example

of a recurring theme that we'll see in a lot
of these where the author is starting to argue that
cicadas are not a threat to humans. And she includes
a short quote that was so good I had to
go look up the original article in full, and I'm
glad I did so. I'm going to summarize a bit
and read from some of it here. The article starts

off with a vivid description from the point of view
of a hypothetical new Yorker. They call them a townsfolk
visiting the rural districts of New Jersey, and it describes
the sites and sounds associated with a mass emergence of
periodical cicadas. It talks about their sound as similar to
a chorus of tree toads, or to quote the shrilling

of the railway track when the train is at a
distance and happens to enter a rock cutting. It describes
going on a ramble through the woods, seeing characteristic holes
in the ground as if someone had been stabbing the
ground with a walking stick, especially near the roots of oaks, chestnut, cottonwood,
and maple trees, and then finding leftover shells from cicada

moltz clutching onto the lower branches of trees like festoons.
And then I'm going to read a paragraph from the
article here. The author writes, quote, pretty soon one of
these peculiar creatures will be found, having just freed itself
from the grim, uncouth shape it has borne for so
many years. The long, transparent double pair of wings have

been shaken out from two limp close packed masses into
their full expanse of brittle pinions. The body takes a
darker tint, and the red eyes that distinguished this harvest
fly gleam brightly. The insect is fully prepared for its apotheosis.
It knows exactly what to do, and before its wings

can bear it, it begins to travel up the trunk
of any tree nearby to join the frivolous band of
its fellows that are making the upper air trimble with
their love notes. You know, theaper, the newspaper reporting style
was different back then.

Speaker 2 (12:26):
Yeah, Yeah, they had a whole different ap style book,
didn't they.

Speaker 3 (12:30):
Yeah. But anyway, so it goes on to talk about
a few other things, like how how the cicada flies,
it's mating, and so forth, But then finally it gets
to the question of whether that frivolous band of fellows
will kill you. So here I'm going to read again
from the article. It says, since the larva lives by
sucking the juices from roots, and the fly has a

large and strong sucking tube, there seems no reason why
this locust, as we call it, should not divert its
attention from the juices of plants to the red juices
of animals and men like the just like the large
horse flies before mentioned. Indeed, just as the small and
maddening mosquito itself. It seems a mere piece of luck,

perhaps the result of their slow flight, or some arrangement
of their sucking tubes, their defective digestive their defective digestive system,
or even the fact that the ancestors of the present
harvest fly have been invariably well conducted, that the Jerseymen
of this year still exists in life instead of being

reduced to a thoroughly pumped frame of flesh. Nothing short
of plate armor would have saved him. Or it may
be that the extraordinary parsimony of nature which leads her
to give the poor harvest fly, after seventeen or thirteen
years of underground existence, only a few weeks in which
to buzz in love and deposit the connubial egg. It

may be the scantness of their allowance of paradise which
saves New Jersey from periodical depopulation. For if it were
not for one or more of these counteracting causes, imagine
the result of an appetite for blood aroused in the
horny breasts of these gigantic horseflies. Instead of flying with
comparatively harmless results about the tops of the trees, they

would descend upon the helpless jerseyman and drive him forth,
if it be possible to make that distinction with a
jerseyman to a foreign climb. Love the dig at New
Jersey residents at the end there.

Speaker 2 (14:35):
Oh man, there's so much to dissect. There, so many
logical hurdles were vaulted over in this absolute sprint toward
the fear the possibility that the cicadas could just one
day wipe out all of New Jersey.

Speaker 3 (14:53):
But I like that it's making the point that cicadas
don't do this by just elaborating extensively on how they could.

Speaker 2 (15:00):
Yeah, it's like, yeah they could. Yeah, I mean if
humans had xylum and not blood, if we were trees
and not mammals, then then sure, yeah, it would be
a dire threat.

Speaker 3 (15:13):
So unfortunately, I feel like I think the article is
just dreaming up a whimsical scenario. But I can't quite
tell if the author is trying to argue against a
belief that some people actually held at the time that like, oh, yeah,
they'll drink your blood, and it's saying like, no, if
they did drink your blood, think how you know it
would depopulate all of New Jersey every thirteen years. I'm

not quite sure exactly what this author is trying to
respond to with this elaborate scenario, but either way, I
love it. But in any case, it is It certainly
is the case that people are concerned about the impact
of cicadas, both on plants and on people. Whether or
not they think, you know, people are actually going to
be drained of their blood, they do at least think

that cicadas are going to bite and sting them. So
Barenbaum finds more articles in the Times. The next one
is once again seventeen years after this last one, so
this would be in May eighteen ninety four, and it
debunks what appear to be several common misconceptions banging around
at the period. In the period, one is something we
talked about in part one that you brought up, rob,

the idea of prognostication via cicada wings that, like the
wa means that a war is going to happen, though
that's not really about cicadas, you know, it's just a
general superstition, so you know, the article attempts to address that. However,
the second misconception addressed is the idea that the cicada
can bite or sting, which the author says is not true.

Speaker 2 (16:44):

Speaker 3 (16:44):
Other persons have feared that these insects may sting and
carefully avoid handling them, as they have no sting and
are only armed with a beak for sucking, which however,
is never used by the perfect fly. Such fears are groundless.
So we're getting a very different the perfect fly here.
This is like a be a tific view of the cicada.

It's like painting it in a very rosy picture. Now,
something that people do wonder they're armed with this knowledge,
like Okay, yeah, they don't have a stinger, they don't
have biting mouth parts. Could they stab you with the
beak if you threatened them? I've turned up a mixed
collection of answers on this. For example, I found an

older book by the Field Museum entomologist William Josiah Gerhard,
published in nineteen twenty three called The Periodical Cicada, in
which Gearhard addresses these concerns by saying, quote, under favorable conditions,
this insect could readily pierce the human skin by means
of its beak, but apparently it rarely or never attempts

to protect itself in such a manner.

Speaker 2 (17:52):
Yeah, because again coming back to the basic evolutionary tactic,
here is overwhelmingtory predatory threats. You know. Again, it's there
are so many of us you cannot possibly kill and
eat all of us. Enough of us are going to survive.

Speaker 3 (18:07):
Read right. So, Yeah, the food at this buffet wants
to defend itself. It doesn't defend It doesn't defend itself
by fighting back. It defends itself by being a part
of a mass of so much food that it cannot
all be eaten.

Speaker 2 (18:20):
Yeah, you can't possibly get through this many steamer trays
of cicada. Yeah, you're out of luck. So that's where
they have That's where the investment is, not in individual
defensive capabilities.

Speaker 3 (18:33):
Yeah. And so I detect in this phrasing, even of
this older book, that even though he's saying it's possible,
he's not aware of any examples of this happening. And
he's written a whole book on the subject, so it
seems like he would have come across some examples if
they were known about. He only mentions this as a hypothetical,
And most modern sources that I found that consult actual

entomologists say that as far as they know this does
not happen. So can a cicada beak you? I don't know.
The way I would think think about it is like
if you are handling a cicada, like it does have
a hard exoskeleton, in some parts of that exoskeleton can
be kind of pokey. So it's conceivable that one of
these pokey parts could give you a little scratch or

a poke, but it's not going to get you like
other insects would. So even though it seems quite clear
that the periodical cicadas of North America do not bite
or sting, and any kind of poke you got from them,

you would really have to be like sort of go
in for it by handling them intentionally, and even then
it seems like it would probably be accidental. There's just
not really anything to worry about. But I think these
questions are going to keep coming up because one of
the themes of me May Berenbaum's article is how writing
about cicadas seems to be in a constant struggle to

deal with myths and misconceptions that arise perpetually again and again.
She quotes another article from The New York Times from
nineteen thirty six by Donald Peaty, which calls the periodical
cicada the most misunderstood insect on our continent and talks
about how it's necessary for the federal government to issue

bulletins to people in the eastern United States to quell
the misconceptions. Pd writs, quote and people may at last
learn that the cicada does not eat crops, does not
sting babies. No authentic case of baby stinging has come
to hand or invade gardens. But despite the fact that
people with knowledge have been debunking this for over one

hundred years, it never sticks. And she cites example after
example of these articles over time over the decades, responding
to reader concerns that cicadas are the same thing as locusts,
that they eat crops in foliage, that they bite or
sting people, especially children, And they don't do that. I
mean they it's not that they can never cause any

harm to plants. They can when they lay their eggs
in the you know, the young the greenwood of some
plants that can sort of kill some of the tips
of stems, but they're just generally not that harmful to plants.
They certainly don't eat crops, and that they don't hurt people.
And I was thinking about this, about these recurring misconceptions

about the periodical cicadas. Of course, there are misconceptions about
all kinds of living creatures. We talk about talk about
them on the show all the time, but it just
seems they are especially prevalent about cicadas. Every time there
is a new, local brewed emergence, people are baffled anew
and prone to the same superstitions that we believed in
last time. And this struck me as very interesting because

I started to think it's almost as if the periodical
cicadas are preventing us from adapting to them in the
same way and by the same method that they prevent
predators and parasitoids from adapting to them by appearing in
different areas on these staggered time schedules. Do you know
what I mean?

Speaker 2 (22:11):
Yeah, Yeah, It's like we instead of having just constant
news coverage or just you know, annual news coverage about
mass emergences of cicadas, we get you know, extra concentrated
news coverage every every so often. Yeah, so we have
time to sort of forget and then and then to

sort of grow hungry for new sensationalist headlines, which we
still have, you know, as we discussed in the last
episode that we did on cicadas, you know, we still
have these kind of outrageous news coverage bits that occur
that seem to even if they don't double down on
the misinformation aspect of it, they kind of like get

into the gleeful, ooh bugs aspect of it that is
almost kind of like the first step in getting to
a they might suck my blood.

Speaker 3 (23:01):
Yeah. In fact, you know, there are these like different
scales of plausibility in the people dreaming up scenarios about
what cicadas could do to them. You know, if you
don't know anything, it's plausible to imagine they could sting
or bite you. They're not going to do that, actually,
but that doesn't seem all that far fetched. And then
beyond that, you get the will they leave me a
thoroughly pumped husk? You know, are they going to suck

out all my blood? That doesn't seem all that plausible.
And then there's like even weirder stuff.

Speaker 2 (23:29):
Yeah. Yeah. Gene Kritsky and what as I believe his
latest book, A Tale of Two Broods, dealing with the
latest cicada emergencies. He goes into a number of different
angles here, but he includes this following actual example from
an eighteen seventy one publication in the Grant County Herald
from Lancaster, Wisconsin. And what's interesting here is he includes

full or most of the either the entirety or most
of the article, and most of it seems to be
rather logical, stressing that cicadas are only a threat to
tree branches, you know, basically doing a good job of
laying out the science. But then at the very end,
it's like they felt like, well, we have to acknowledge
the superstition in a little bit, so they include this

last bit quote the insect has no sting and does
not seem to have the power to bite. It is
possible then, that in exceedingly rare cases, it has attempted
and succeeded in depositing an egg in the skull of
a human being. So you know, once you add that
at the end, if you're like, but there's still there's
a non zero chance it could lay an egg in

your skull, Like, it kind of undoes all that great
work you just did at dispelling the superstition.

Speaker 3 (24:44):
Well, wait, I believe there's a non zero chances that like,
has this possibly happened? Doesn't seem super plausible.

Speaker 2 (24:51):
But I mean, I didn't see I've not seen any
real accounts of this, you know, no medical journal, you know,
recent or old.

Speaker 3 (25:00):
I heard from a guy.

Speaker 2 (25:01):
Yeah, yeah, it's like somebody said it happened, and can
you prove that it didn't sort of a thing, you.

Speaker 3 (25:06):
Know, yeah, disprove or except yeah, that's great.

Speaker 2 (25:11):
And even then, I feel like there's a danger in
us mentioning it here too, that now that's in your mind,
you're like when you experience the cicadas out there in
the world, that you're going to think, but could they
lay an egg in my skull? I don't want that,
but really do not worry about it. These creatures have
an agenda, and that agenda does not include sucking your blood,
destroying your crops, landing Well, they may land on your baby,

but they don't care about your baby, and they're definitely
not interested in laying eggs and skulls.

Speaker 3 (25:40):
I can very well imagine a scenario that easily leads
to the misconception that they sting babies, which is that
like if you've got a kid and like an insect
flies up in lands on them. The child might become
scared and start crying, and then it flies away, and
then you think they're crying because they're in pain. It's
stung them.

Speaker 2 (25:59):
Yeah, Or an insect landed on your child and you're
overly protective, as many of his parents are, and you're like,
oh goodness, then you rush forward and you create the
incident of fear and so forth.

Speaker 3 (26:10):
Yeah. Oh, but I did want to mention one thing
that I thought was interesting that cicadas. Of course, they
do not bite, they do not sting. It seems exceedingly rare.
If they ever even really poke people. That seems to
not happen much. If it happens at all, so you
don't have to worry about that. But they might possibly

pee on you and the p The nature of the
cicada urination is quite alarming actually if you see it,
because it doesn't look like what you imagine insect urination
would be, and in fact it's not very consistent with
what pre existing models before just recently would have predicted

of an insect like them. Because cicadas are insects and
they are xylum feeders. They live by sucking xylum from
plants and creatures with these characteristics. The little insects and
xylum feeders were pretty much thought to excrete by creating
little droplets that they shake off essentially, And this is

due to how fluid dynamics work at small scales. You know,
We've talked about this a lot on the show because
of that essay. I love bringing up the on being
the right size, you know, or like the way that
your body interacts with water is very different if you
are very small, Like the surface tension of water becomes
a much more powerful and dangerous force to deal with

in everyday life if you're very small. And it's also
true that water flows differently at very small scales. So
you know, larger mammals tend to produce a kind of
stream of urine that goes out of the body. But
when you get down to smaller and smaller animals, what
tends to happen is that they just kind of like
do a weak, little kind of emission of droplets that

they might shake off of the body somehow. But I
was reading about new research published just this year in
March twenty twenty four in p and As by L.
Eoj Chalita and M. Sad Bombla, and the paper was
called Unifying Fluidic Excretion across life from Cicadas to Elephants.
And so the authors write in their abstract, can insects

weighing mirror grams challenge our current understanding of fluid dynamics
in urination jetting fluids like the larger their larger mammalian counterparts.
And the answer is yes, Yes, Insects can create jets
just like mammals do. You don't often see it, but
cicadas can do this. And they got some video footage
of this, and they studied how the water, how the

excretion flows out of the cicadas. I would recommend looking
up video of cicadas peeing because, as I said earlier,
it's it looks alarming.

Speaker 2 (28:56):
Yeah it is. It's not the medicine dropper scenario we
were just talking about. It is, well, what you might
call a proper leak that these cicadas are taking.

Speaker 3 (29:06):
Yeah, yeah, it's jetting out. And so they talk about
a previous urination model where it was assumed that jetting
was basically limited to animals over three kilograms in body
mass because of just because of how fluids flow, and
that it's hard to create a jet if you're smaller.
They say, it's owing to viscous and surface tension constraints

at microscales like I was talking about. You know, water
flows differently, liquids flow differently at smaller scales. But they say, quote,
our findings defied this paradigm by demonstrating that cicadas weighing
just two grams possess the capability for jetting fluids through
remarkably small orifices. Using dimensional analysis, we introduce a unifying

fluid dynamic scaling framework that accommodates a broad range of taxa,
from surface tension dominated insects to inertia and gravity reliant mammals.
And then they go on to say, as we often
get in studies like this, they go on to say,
you know, this could be useful in designing better nozzles
for you know, like tiny robots and machines that need

to jet things out at a micro scale. So maybe
one day, maybe one day, some medical technology, like a
little robot that swims inside your body and jets around,
you know, needs to like squirt a jet of something
inside your body, will be based on the design of
a cicada's weird, kind of alarming urination.

Speaker 2 (30:33):
I'll be very surprised if this study doesn't win an
ig Nobel Prize this year. Yes, you know, yeah, because
you have the cicada emergence is happening anyway. Cicadas are
in the public mindset, so yeah, this seems like this
is a this is a shoehorn for the Biology Prize
or I don't know what one of the other prizes
would probably work as well, but surely biology.

Speaker 3 (30:54):
It's possible. We'll be back on this study later this year.

Speaker 2 (30:57):
Yes, all right, Now, for the remainder of this episode,
I wanted to get back into the whole classification of broods.
You know, we're talking about brood X and so forth.

In the last episode, we talked about the evolution of
periodical cicadas and why they do this, but we didn't
really get into the amazing way this really shakes out
in terms of different broods or the history of how
we got to this point.

Speaker 3 (31:33):
Right, because when we talk about these periodical emergencies, we've
tried to mention this a few times already as we
go along, but it's not like the thirteen year or
seventeen year cicadas all come out at once. It's like
every thirteen years, they're all there. We have different local
populations referred to as broods that are on the same

time schedule.

Speaker 2 (31:57):
Right right, based on their geographical area and the year
they emerge. And basically all of this our understanding of
this and our brood classification of periodical cicadas, it traces
back to the work of American entomologist Charles Lester Marlott,
who lived eighteen sixty three through nineteen fifty four. Kansas born,

KSU educated, he was an entomologist who worked most of
his career. I believe he was a USDA researcher, and
I was reading about him in the Legacy of Charles
Marlott and Efforts to Limit Plant Pest Invasions by Leibhold
et al. Published in the journal American Entomologist in twenty sixteen.
So he's a pretty interesting fellow. A lot of his

work for the USDA centered around the control of agricultural
pest insects, with a focus on invasive threats. The article
mentions that in nineteen oh one and nineteen oh two
Marlott and his wife went on honeymoon in China in Japan,
which again nineteen oh one.

Speaker 3 (33:00):
You know too, this is a.

Speaker 2 (33:00):
Pretty adventurous vacation. That's a pretty adventerous honeymoon. You know
that we had to get there by ship and just
more of an undertaking compared to today. But while there,
it also gave him a chance to check out the
native range of a particular invasive pest insect known as

the San Jose scale, or it was known it was
known in the US at the time. It's the San
Jose scale. Uh, this being a creature that was a
big problem at this point in California. But it was
originally native to Siberia, northeast China, and I believe parts
of the Korean Peninsula. I believe it has since spread

to various places, not just you know, to to North America.
But so anyway, this this vacation, this honeymoon, gave him
a chance to investigate this organism's natural environment, to make
note of its natural predators, and even bring back specimens,
and all of this at his own personal expense. That's
just how devoted an entomologist he was. And this kind

of line of work would ultimately lead to the introduction
of the Italian ladybird beetle or lady bug, though it's
not a true bug, the particular species being Chillcorus similis.
This is the red spotted ladybird, so Charles Marlott would
be the individual to orchestrate it being introduced to North

America in order to combat the San Jose scale threat.

Speaker 3 (34:33):
Weird. I just looked up the red spotted ladybird and
if it is the thing, I've found it looks like
an inversion of a ladybug.

Speaker 2 (34:42):
Yeah yeah, so you know, not to be confused with
various other ladybirds and related insects. But this is interesting though,
because he was in this effort, he was very much
a pioneer of biocontrol, introducing species to another species that
has already been introduced into an area. Again, as we've

discussed in the show before, though, this of course is
a very delicate balancing act and one that especially now,
we do not engage in willy nilly. There are all
sorts of things that can go wrong and do go
wrong when we attempt to write a previous wrong.

Speaker 3 (35:20):
Yeah, google cane toads in Australia if you want to
see how this can go wrong.

Speaker 2 (35:24):
Now, this honeymoon to Japan and China that Marlott and
his wife went on. It ends up taking a tragic
turn because during his travels in Asia, his wife contracted
some unknown illness. I don't know that. I didn't even
run across any suspicions of what it might have been,
but she caught some sort of unknown illness ultimately died
from it, and the authors of this paper add that quote.

This experience no doubt shaped Marlott's thinking and perhaps contributed
to his strong concern about the dangers of accidentally importing
species from overseas. So again, his wife seemingly caught some
sort of a pathogen, and Marlott his work dealt with
agricultural pests. But you could see how this could intensify

his already pre existing concern about pest organisms from other
ecosystems being introduced into North America. And indeed, Marlott became
very concerned about the threat of invasive organisms that had
already entered the US through soil and trade, as well
as the potential for future invasive exposures. He was key

in urging Congress to enact plant quarantine legislation to help
deal with this threat, and I was The article gets
into it here. It was a pretty polarizing topic because
on one hand, you had plenty of people who are
already like thinkers on this. You know, they could point
directly at problems with invasive pests in agriculture in North America,

like with the San Jose scale, and say, yeah, this
is terrible. We need to combat this and figure out
ways to prevent it from happening. But on the other hand,
you had individuals who were saying, no, no, no, no,
you can't stand in the way of free trade. You
can't get in the way of American horticulture because it
depends on introducing plant species from around the world, and

you just need to stand back and let us do it.
And so we end up with another really interesting and
very newsy and political situation that occurs. And none of
this involves cicadas, but I thought it was too fascinating.
It all concerns Marlin, so I do want to go
into it, at least briefly. Here Basically, what happens is

in the year nineteen oh nine, you have a number
of cherry trees, some two thousand cherry trees that are
gifted from Japan to the United States. It's a gift
that involved. Basically, there's kind of like a back and
forth between a prominent Japanese chemist of the time, doctor
Takamini Jokichi, and the first lady of the time Hell

and heron taft. So you know, she'd expressed interest in
the cherry trees of Japan, and the good doctor Here's like, well, yeah,
I've got some connections here, and lo and behold, now
we get a state offering of two thousand cherry trees.
They are sent on their way across the ocean, and
then they're put on a train and travel across the
continent to Washington, d c. M. And this is where

Marlott enters the picture, because a USDA team led by
him ends up inspecting the trees and he's like, instantly
he pulls a total ripley on all of this. He's like, no, no, no, no,
you cannot do this, Like we just checked. These things
are infested, they have scale insects, they have root gall
What we need to do is just burn them all.

Speaker 3 (38:45):
Oh no, I mean I understand the reasoning there, and
that makes sense, but it's like it was a gift,
you know, it's just like, oh that sucks.

Speaker 2 (38:53):
Yeah, yeah, so they didn't burn it right away, Like
basically this had to travel up the pole, and I
believe President Taft himself had to give the authorization, but
that within a month all these trees were burned. And
I guess the upside here is that, first of all,
Agricultural Secretary James Wilson and his staff followed this up
with a strong push, using scientific evidence to seek a

national plant quarantine law. So thirty nine states had already
passed such laws, but with this they were able to
roll out the Plant Quarantine Act of nineteen twelve, which
went into effect August twentieth, nineteen twelve, and the establishment
of the Federal Horticultural Board, and also you know future
plant quarantine efforts, so you know, they're able to spin

it off and do some additional good, you know, broader
good outside of you know, state offerings of gifts. And
there's even I guess a happy ending to the whole
cherry tree gift tobacco here as well, because Japan ended
up offering replacements. These were fumigated before shipment, and ultimately
the first lady and the wife of the jap these

ambassador like oversaw the planting of these trees, and the
Washington d c. Cherry trees remain in iconic aspect of
the nation's capital. Anyway, none of that involves cicadas, but
it all involves Charles Lester Marlott. So I thought we'd
mention it. But if invasive pests were Charles Lester Marlott's
hated foes, his best friends, his most beloved insects were,

without a doubt, periodical cicadas. He studied them, immensely, published
about them. He loved them so much that when he
had a house built in Washington, d C. This mansion,
this big brick mansion, he had cicadas carved into various
features of the home. Huh. And the paper here includes

some images. I've included them here for you to look at, Joe.
This home apparently still is still around it currently, I
believe houses the Institute of World Politics. I intentionally did
not look them up. I don't know what their world
politics happened to be, and I'm going to remain blissfully
ignorant of whatever they are. But it is my understanding

that the cicadas are still there, like on the banisters
of the staircases and so forth.

Speaker 3 (41:07):
Uh, huh, it's a beautiful house whatever they're doing in there.

Speaker 2 (41:10):
Yeah, but yeah, he was a key figure in our
understanding and our study of periodical cicadas. He contributed to
the taxonomic study of them, outlined the thirty hypothesized broods
of periodical cicadas in North America. His nineteen oh seven
book The Periodical Cicada laid everything out to signing Roman numerals,

covering all thirteen years of the thirteen periodical cicadas and
all seventeen of the seventeen periodical cicadas for a grand
total of thirty.

Speaker 3 (41:39):
That's interesting. So you know, if you go back to
these articles that I was talking about from the New
York Times in the nineteenth century, some people were already
aware that there were like some local emergences that happened
on seventeen year cycles. But so there was some knowledge,
but I guess they didn't know. They didn't have worked

out like what all the broods were and where all
of them.

Speaker 2 (42:02):
Were, right. Yeah, you look at details from his work,
which was extensive, like he's making maps, you know, pinpointing
them like this guy went hard on periodical cicadas and
as such, like anything you read about periodical cicadas. You
will invariably see his work sided like there'll be Marlett
down There often multiple Marlet publications that are cited. I mean,

his work was just foundational. Gene Kritsky, of course, cites
him numerous times in a Tale of Two Broods, saying quote,
he designated the seventeen year cicadas that emerged in eighteen
ninety three as brood one. The cicadas that emerged in
eighteen ninety four were called brood two. The cicadas emerging
in eighteen ninety five were to be called brood three,
and so on. And then he adds for just to

drive everything at home, he says, quote, Marlott's system greatly
reduced the confusion surrounding the study of periodical cicadas, and
it has stood the test of time. It was particularly
helpful in areas where there were overlapping broods, enabling observers
to determine precisely where and when cicadas would again emerge.

Speaker 3 (43:06):
And as far as I can tell, our systems for
predicting these brood emergencies have been pretty reliable.

Speaker 2 (43:12):
Yeah. Yeah, Now, you know, some things didn't quite shake out,
So you know, it turns out like we don't have
a full thirty broods. I think it's more like fifteen. Right,
Some years might not have produced a brood. And we
know that some broods were in decline when Marlott studied them,
and some have seemingly gone extinct. So for instance, there
is a brood twenty three, but not a twenty four

breod twenty one native to the Florida Panhandle when extinct
sometime after eighteen seventy. So you know that there have
been changes. And also it does drive home that you know,
even though when these broods emerge, it is just overwhelming
and it just seems like they're a juggernaut that can't
be stopped. They are vulnerable, you know, there are you know,

changes to their environment can impact them and they can
just go away forever. Now, you know, we can't go
into everything like again, I'll just summarize by saying Marlott
was the man of his time in laying out much
of the foundational work for our understanding of periodical cicadas.

But of course, given the time he was active, and
given just the pervasive superstitions around cicadas, he of course
also had to do a little myth busting here and
there concerning their you know, consumption of flesh and so forth.
So here's one more quote from gene Kritsky's A Tale
of Two Broods quote. Reports of periodical cicadas attempting to

lay eggs in humans popped up in several newspapers during
the nineteenth century. Marlott settled the question, writing, with every
general outbreak of this insect our associated accounts in local
papers of its stinging human beings, the sting often resulting,
it is stated more or less seriously to the person stung.
So far as investigation of the reports have been possible,

they have proved to be either utterly without fandebt foundation
or much exaggerated. So nothing that nothing that we haven't
already covered, and that that scientists aren't having to again
reiterate for the public. But it's it's interesting that, yeah,
here's this guy who did so much work on cicadas,
but he would also have to chime in and just

say no, no, no, they are not going to drink
your blood. They're not going to lay eggs in your brain.
They ultimately don't care about you. You are not part
of the cicada agenda. All right, Well, we're going to
go ahead and close out this episode right there, but
we're going to return to the world of cicadas in
the next episode. There's still a lot we didn't get
to discuss. There are whole area's mythological yet to be

to be discussed here on the show. We haven't really
gotten into the culinary question of cicadas, so there's a
lot to discuss, and of course in the meantime, we
would love to hear from everyone out there. You undoubtedly
have experiences with cicadas, annual or periodical, and we would
like to hear about them. Do you fancy yourself a

cicada photographer? Oh, we'll send your photos. We will look
at them. Do you have any thoughts on cicada urination? Yes,
we want to know about that as well. And if
you have any second, third, fourth, fifth hand accounts of
cicada's biting people, sucking blood, or laying eggs and the skull, yes,
right in with that as well. We will of course
discuss that in future episodes of Listener. Made just a

reminder that Stuff to Blow Your Mind is primarily a
science and culture podcast, with core episodes publishing on Tuesdays
and Thursdays, listener mail on Monday's short form episode on
Wednesdays and on Fridays, we set aside most serious concerns
to just talk about a weird film on Weird House Cinema.

Speaker 3 (46:39):
Huge thanks as always to our excellent audio producer JJ Posway.
If you would like to get in touch with us
with feedback on this episode or any other, to suggest
a topic for the future, or just to say hello,
you can email us at contact at stuff to Blow
your Mind dot com.

Speaker 1 (47:02):
Stuff to Blow Your Mind is production of iHeartRadio. For
more podcasts from my heart Radio, visit the iHeartRadio app,
Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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