MIKE KEELER: Cicada Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

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Sometimes the best part of a news story is buried right near the end.

Take, for example, the tale of the 17-year cicadas returning to the Northeast this summer. This batch of bugs is called Brood X, and they must have had one spectacular breeding season many years ago, because they’ve been returning in force every 17 years since.

With such a colossal cohort of critters, you might think that some other organism would eventually take advantage of this huge supply. Which brings us to the next part of the story. This year the brood has been infected by a fungus called Massospora, which causes the victims to lose their butts and genitals when they molt, leaving only a white plug that looks like a pencil eraser where their backsides should be. Perhaps 5% of the brood may get it.

And that leads to the next part: sexual mind control! The fungus injects an amphetamine into the affected bugs, which will make them hyper-horny and desperate to hook up with any other cicada they can find.

And then there’s this: it’s a sexually transmitted disease!! The affected insects, sporting white fungus pencil erasers instead of privates, will have lost the ability to mate. But they won’t care, they will be so chemically twitterpated that they will just keep trying. The males will “mate” with females, and in desperation they will also pretend to be females to attract more hookups. And with every partner-pouncing the fungus will spread.

So here are the facts in a cicada shell: this summer there will be a biblical plague of mindless sex-zombie insect eunuchs flying about in a fervid orgy of impotent transvestite dry-humping horniness, in slavish contagious service to their drug-pushing fungal mind-master overlord.

It’s all true, and it surely couldn’t get any funkier than that. Unless, of course, you are hearing this tale on NPR, and you come to the closing thought from a scientist, an associate professor of forest pathology and mycology at West Virginia University named Michael Kasson. Who in his wisdom points out that the fungal sex-drug is a kind of psilocybin, the same stuff you find in magic mushrooms. Which is not only a stimulant, it’s a powerful pain killer. And so he offers this:

“Everybody’s having a good time while they’re infected. So I don’t imagine there’s much pain — maybe a desire to listen to the Grateful Dead or something like that, but no pain.”

(Dude! Perhaps he is slyly referring to the classic Dead lyric about a groovy event that takes place under the spiral light of Venus, goddess of love, in which ‘crickets and cicadas sing a rare and different tune.’ If so, well played, young scientist…)

And so the story has a pop-culture crescendo, some cheeky geeky commentary.

As for the cicadas, have they met their fungal match? Will this be the sex disruptor that erases them from the face of the earth? Are we looking at Brood X apocalypse?

We will find out soon enough…in 2038.

– Mike Keeler