Symphony Of Summer Cygale Sound Ahead

The summer music festivals in France are rightly a highly-praised vaste enterprise, but there is one concert not widely featured on the national music menu – the Cygale Symphony.

Cicada stamps from around the world (Credit: DanCentury)

For if you live anywhere rural in southern France the background music to your summer months will be provided by the cicada or cygale. These insects are synonymous with warm weather in this country and in particularly in Provence. There are more than 2500 species of cicada in the world and the insect is found on every continent except for Antarctica.

Here in France there are 15 or 16 species, most of which spend two to five years underground as nymphs living on the sap of tree roots. Cicadas have the longest life cycle of any insect. After their long dark subterranean sejour they emerge in the summer for the very briefest of two weeks during which they mate and die. Talk about operatic tragedy in the insect-world !

Mike Alexander our nature and gardening correspondent notes that in France  mythology holds that la cygale is sent by God to stop workers from taking overly long siestas!

It is during this brief final few bars of the musical score of their lives that we hear their vibrant familiar song. Unlike crickets and grasshoppers, which create sounds by rubbing various body parts together, the cicada has specially adapted membranes on it exoskeleton which it contracts and expands to make a noise. This sound is amplified in a type of resonance chamber in the body to produce a mating call which in full-throated sforzando can reach 120 decibels. Loud enough indeed to cause permanent hearing loss were mestre cygale to take up residence near your right ear for any length of time. Indeed while it is one of the loudest noises produced in the insect kingdom it is also temperature related. If this drops below 22°C the elasticity of the insect’s membranes is reduced and mestre cygale falls silent.

17-Year Cicada Illinois Brood XIII (Credit: Wikipedia)

It is only the male that belts out a song in an exuberant strident tenor as he attempts to woo a mate. Each species of cicada in fact produces a slightly different melody — rather like national musical composers really.

Despite the many restaurants one can find in Provence with the name La Cigal, the cicada is not eaten in France as it is in many parts of Asia and Africa. There was a time once however when the cicada was thought to be a cure for urinary tract infection and the French would brew dried insects into a curative tisane.

Don‘t confuse our operatic summer festive male with cigale de mer which is sometimes still seen on seafood menus and which is a type of small lobster.

This spring the north east United States is expecting a massive invasion of cicadas as the insect there lives a 13 or 17- year life cycle which scientists are easily able to predict.

Very soon the 17-year brood should be emerging from their Stygian caverns in numbers not seen since 1996. There may be as many as 1.5 million insects per acre rising from the depths, according to US scientists.

One possible reason for the strange 13 or 17- year life-cycle of these two breeds of cicada is that they are primary numbers. Predators usually have two or five year life cycles and so by following rather obtuse cyclical patterns of their own the cicada is almost totally able to avoid its primary predators and survive to woo us with song.

US emergency services noted that in previous infestations their switch boards were overwhelmed with calls about War-of-the-World type alien invasions and other unexplained phenomena.

Whilst insect and nature buffs in America eagerly anticipate the forthcoming festival spectacle, the nation’s  motorbike riders are said to be less enthusiastic. Here in France one is spared any  alien invasion theories but French mythology does claim that la cygale is sent by God to stop workers from taking overly long siestas!

Story: Mike Alexander

Mike Alexander is a regular contributor to French News Online, offering topical gardening advice in his monthly column and exploring quirky nature and food habits in France. Read his gardening advice here and here


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