2013-05-22 / Arts and Entertainment

Cicadas in the Air

Cold Spring professor explains the 17-year phenomenon
By Annie Chesnut

It’s official: cicadas have arrived in Philipstown.

And Cold Spring resident David Rothenberg couldn’t be more pleased.

The PCN&R met with Rothenberg, an expert on many living things, including cicadas, just a few days before a reader brought in a photo of a red-eyed, lace-winged beauty that had emerged from the ground in his yard on the heels of a swarm of confused ants.

Rothenberg, 50, a Harvard-trained professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, has just published a new book, Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise, which details how and why many insects “sing” the way they do, and postulates that the human sense of rhythm may reflect the natural sounds these insects make. The book comes with a Bug Music CD, featuring compositions on which Rothenberg, also a jazz musician, collaborated. Rothenberg has also written extensively on the songs of birds and whales.

The cleverly timed bug-book release will be followed by a series of cicada-themed events around the New York area. And, if you happen to see Rothenberg around town, you will likely see his “Sing – Fly – Mate – Die” T-shirt, produced especially for this occasion.

The shirt describes a fascinating life: just a few weeks out in the sun and air with about a million or so of your closest friends, followed by mating, egg laying (usually on the branches of small fruit trees), and death. When the eggs hatch, the larvae drop to the ground, burrow into the soil, and remain alive for 17 years until the process starts all over again.

Chatting with Rothenberg is delightful because he is willing and able to duplicate all of the sounds he’s discussing. Explaining that the cicadas’ singing is all part of a mating ritual, he described the male’s two-toned, plaintive sound, “pha-roah,” with a high “pha,” and a low “roah.” In response, the female cicada responds by clicking, and the conversation continues until they mate.

Are these cicadas dangerous to crops and gardens? Rothenberg says “not really.” Out of 2,500 species on earth, there are about 19 “broods” of Magicicada septendecim cicadas, native to the American northeast. This year’s emergence is Brood II. They are plentiful, and can be annoying, but they typically won’t eat your plants the way the proverbial locusts do. And because of the infrequency with which they appear, and the large numbers that arrive when they do appear, they have no serious natural enemies.https://mail.google.com/mail/ca/u/0/images/cleardot.gif“Nobody depends on them,” Rothenberg said.

As for events, a “loose coalition of cicada enthusiasts” is celebrating the bugs’ arrival in June. Rothenberg’s appearance calendar includes these dates:

June 1    World Science Festival, Bronx Botanic Garden 3 p.m.

June 4-5  Mohonk Mountain House Cicada Days, New Paltz

June 7   Cary Institute Millbrook, 7 p.m.

June 8   School of Jellyfish, Beacon, 6 p.m.

June 9   Hudson Valley Outfitters, Cold Spring, 4 p.m.

June 15  Kingston Cicada Festival 3-6 p.m.

June 22 Farmers' Market, Cold Spring, 10 a.m.

And if you want to participate with a tracking survey, check out the online “Cicada Tracker”, with a special page entitled “Mapping Swarmageddon.”

Later this year Rothenberg, his wife, the Estonian artist Jaanika Peerna, and their son will be on sabbatical in Berlin. There’s an animal communication studies facility there and he hopes to take a closer look at nightingale songs.


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