'Sing, Mate, Die': Why Do People Fear Cicadas?

Lindsay Kalter

May 12, 2021

The past year has not been for the faint of heart: wildfires, a divisive presidential election, a global pandemic ― and now, a cicada invasion.

While there are annual cicadas that come out in the summer, the periodical variety appear far less often. Throughout May and June, this batch of red-eyed creatures ― deemed "Brood X" ― will emerge by the billions after 17 years underground. Residents in more than a dozen states, including Maryland, New York, Michigan, and Virginia, are bracing for the insect's signature song that can reach more than 100 decibels ― about as loud as a lawnmower.

For some, their upcoming arrival is a source of stress. Cicadas are not dangerous, but like many insects, they elicit fear, disgust, and annoyance in many.

"The sentiment here is more dread and nuisance than excitement," says Nick Bloom, 36, an electronic engineer in Mount Vernon, VA. "I think about doing daily tasks like mowing the lawn, and that's what gives me anxiety."

He says, only half joking, "People keep saying the cicadas are going to think the lawnmower is a mating call."

Many have taken to social media for moral support in anticipation of the invasion.

"Every morning I wake up in fear that it will be the day I hear the cicadas," said one tweet from a Cincinnati resident.

"Woke up to devastating news from my mother that Cicadas are back this year. I'm still dealing with the emotional trauma and constant fear they caused me back in 2004. Lord, give me strength," said another tweet, from Penn State football player Aeneas Hawkins.

Cicadas are no doubt an inconvenience in several ways. Aside from the noise, they leave their molted skin strewn about and damage trees by laying their eggs in branches. But there is an additional "ick" factor that is unrelated to their annoying habits, says Martin Antony, PhD, a professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto and co-author of The Anti-Anxiety Program: A Workbook of Proven Strategies to Overcome Worry, Panic, and Phobias.

"Generally, fear of bugs falls into the creepy-crawly category, and most times, this is fear with a disgust component," he says. "Cicadas are especially unusual, and the less familiar things are, the scarier they can be."

These feelings are likely part of an evolutionary mechanism to protect us. People are prone to avoid things that could carry disease or harm us, like bugs, rodents, and snakes, he says.

In addition, people don't like things that are unpredictable that they can't control. The result is often fear, revulsion, and even anger.

"When there are swarms of them and you're not in control, that adds to a level of stress or frustration and fear," Antony says. "Fear and anger are two sides of the same coin ― both of them are responses to threat."

Their appearance may also be a factor, he says. With their broad wings, wide-set eyes, and sizeable bodies ― up to over 2 inches long ― they likely aren't winning any insect beauty pageants.

"They kind of look like aliens," Antony says. "The bigger a bug gets, the more it looks like a monster."

People also likely have negative associations with insects from depictions on screen, or from bad experiences they have had personally, he says.

For Vicki Dodson, a Baltimore-based art director and graphic designer who creates her own cicada art, it is quite the opposite. She was taught from a young age to appreciate bugs like cicadas, she says. And through the process of selling her products, she has realized there are many people who share her appreciation for them.

In fact, there is quite the cicada following. An insect enthusiast group dubbed the "cicada chasers" travels from other states and even other countries to track them.

"For me, I feel like humans are so detached from nature in so many ways now," says Dodson, 57. "When I think about a billion insects coming out of the ground ― sing, mate, die ― it's a phenomenal reminder there's a natural world out there.

"Not to sound corny, but it's kind of magic."

Sources

Twitter: @AeneasHawkins, May 5, 2021; @kenzieechapelo, May 2, 2021.

CNET.org.

LiveScience.com.

Nick Bloom, Mount Vernon, VA.

Martin Antony, PhD, professor of psychology, Ryerson University, Toronto; co-author, The Anti-Anxiety Program: A Workbook of Proven Strategies to Overcome Worry, Panic, and Phobias

Vicki Dodson, Baltimore.

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