The First Thanksgiving Plague - the Puzzling Invasion of the Red-Eyed Aliens

List: Posted: 11/15/11

As Thanksgiving approaches, it is traditional to take stock of one’s life, and to consider all the things that you and your family should be grateful for. This Thanksgiving, consider the fate of the first colony of the Pilgrim Fathers, and the trials and tribulations they underwent after setting in their new home, the land we now call America.


Invasion of the Crop Snatchers


In 1633, 13 years after the Pilgrim Fathers landed in New England, their small colony was struck by a plague.  In the space of four days, every house, field and orchard was covered by millions of little red-eyed insects.  They emerged out of the ground, crawled up into trees and over house walls, and there they sat, their transparent wings folded over their inch-and-a-half long bodies. 


And they sang.


The sound was ear-splitting.  People had to shout to make themselves heard.  One farmer said he couldn't even hear the bells around the necks of his cattle, although he could see they were ringing.


Biblical Plague


Some colonists likened the event to the biblical plague of locusts, with which Jehovah threatened the land of Egypt in the Book of Exodus.  Others disputed this analogy as the red-eyed bugs didn't eat "every herb of the land and every fruit of the tree," as the biblical story goes.  Instead, they destroyed vegetation by laying their eggs on leaves, which all turned brown.


Then, after three weeks, they all died.  Hundreds of thousands of tiny bodies lay in great drifts and were eaten by the colony's pigs.


Silent All These Years


The colonists waited tensely to see if the invasion would re-occur, but nothing happened.  Not for 17 years.  However, in 1650, the plague returned.  Once again, the land was covered with strange insects singing their deafening song, and after three weeks they all died. Another 17 years passed and it happened again.  And it has gone on happening at 17-year intervals ever since.


These alien invaders aren't locusts, although some local people still call them that.  They're cicadas, periodic cicadas.


What Are Cicadas?


The eggs of the cicada hatch after six to eight weeks.  The larva, a small maggot, burrows into the ground, where it stabs its mouthpart into a tree root and starts to suck the sap.  This sap is so watery that the maggots grow slowly, only shedding their skin every few years; each time they do this they burrow up a few inches and re-attach themselves to the root. 


They remain underground for 17 years, then re-appear on the surface where they build little mud turrets and wait.  Then, simultaneously, the fully-formed red-eyed adults emerge in their tens, their hundreds, of thousands.


Unsolved Mysteries


There are many puzzles to this strange cycle.  Why do the newly re-emerged adults wait on the surface?  For each other?  For the right weather conditions?  And how do they know when it's the right time of year to reappear?  Maybe they're aware of changes in the tree sap, which will be different in summer and winter.


And why emerge all at the same time?  This at least ensures that all the males - it's only the males who call, will find females, although you wonder how they hear the females' responses over the din they're making!  It's also a good survival strategy as local birds can't possibly eat insects in such enormous numbers.  So the majority survive to breed.

The 'Counting Insect'


But the most intriguing puzzle of all remains: how do they count those 17 summers?  It can't have anything to do with weather as there are dozens of these cicada populations in North America, each with its own different 17-year cycle.  To add to the puzzle, there's another species further south that works on a 13-year cycle.


There are areas of the central United States where these two species overlap.  Someone has worked out that every 221 years the fortunate, or unfortunate, inhabitants of these places can expect the simultaneous arrival of both species of periodic cicada.


If you happen to live in one of these rare places, perhaps a trip to the drugstore to buy a good pair of earplugs would be a thoroughly sound (pardon the pun) investment.



Article by:

Kate Rhodes
College Tutor (B.A. Hons) and Boxer-dog Devotee
Folkestone, UK

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