I never saw people get so excited over a swarm of bugs in my life. Here in Chicago we are celebrating the return of the cicadas after 17 years.

Since 1990, they had awaited the mysterious cue. It arrived just after dusk.

Every few inches, another orange-brown cicada nymph climbed out of the soil and marched toward anything tall: a tree, a weed, a fence or a sign. The teeming mass scaled up, as high as it could go. They cracked their way through skins and stretched their ghost-white wings. Before morning, most of them had turned black and prepared to unleash an unholy sound. (Chicago Tribune, May 29, 2007)

Unholy sound, indeed! I went biking with a couple of friends this weekend at the Des Plaines River trail. As we were approaching the park, we saw what appeared to be hummingbirds lazily flying about. But of course they weren’t hummingbirds, they were cicadas. A swarm of cicadas of biblical proportions! These guys are not petite. They are rather large for a flying insect and they fly like they’ve had way too much to drink. When we got into the park, all you could hear was this humming all around you. As we started to bike into the woods, the humming surrounded us and echoed off the river creating a most unusual sound.

Scientists have measured crescendos of the distinct whirring and buzzing noises made by males as they try to attract mates at 96 decibels, as loud as a jet flying close overhead, loud enough that biologists such as Cooley avoid ear pain by wearing gun mufflers used at shooting ranges. Annual cicadas that show up during the dog days of summer are louder individually, but periodic cicadas arrive in much greater numbers and collectively produce a louder racket. (Chicago Tribune, May 29, 2007)

Now let me tell you, biking in a forest with hundreds of thousands of cicadas drunkingly flying about is a real hazard. I can’t tell you how many I ran into, over, and around. The good news is that these guys are so big you can pretty much see them coming and avoid them. Whenever we stopped, the cicadas would alight on us and just hang out like a strangely bejeweled brooch. They don’t bite (no jaws) but they can certainly hang on. I watched as one of my friends took off on her bike with five little guys hanging onto her shirt! The other thing about the cicadas is that their little exoskeletons literally coated the forest floor. According to the Trib, when they crawl out of the soil they leave piles of their discarded exoskeletons at the base of trees.

So an unholy sound? Well, between the buzzing of the cicadas and the crunch of exoskeletons beneath our tires (or feet) it was rather strange, but not so unholy. There was something really quite wonderful about being surrounded by these benign creatures and entering into their world. They transformed the park into this mythic, other-worldly place that one could only behold with reverence.