KJZZ is a service of Rio Salado College,
and Maricopa Community Colleges

Copyright © 2024 KJZZ/Rio Salado College/MCCCD
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Cicadapocalypse'? Author says he wants people to fall in love with these 'derpy little bugs'

Later this month, vast swaths of the country will be blanketed with the familiar sound of cicadas. These “periodical cicadas,” as they’re known, emerge from underground every few years in groups known as broods.

This year will actually see the emergence of two broods, which is rare. This year’s broods last emerged together in 1803. 

All of this might be surprising to Arizonans. In the Valley, cicadas come out every summer. But the periodical cicadas are a different species, and despite their historical and biological significance, not everyone is excited about their imminent arrival.

Roger McMullan, however, is very excited. He recently published a graphic novel called “Cicadapocalypse.” Ominous title notwithstanding, Roger’s goal is to make people fall in love with what he calls “derpy little bugs.” 

Interview highlights


SAM DINGMAN: So just to start, I, I wanted to tell you back when I had a dating profile. I had listed as one of my favorite sounds, the sound of cicadas. And almost every initial message that I got from a perspective partner was either, "thank you so much for saying this, I love cicadas also. It's so hard to find other people who love it." Or, "you are clearly deranged. That's one of the worst sounds in the entire world." So in my lived experience, which is obviously not a comprehensive scientific study, this is a controversial insect.

ROGER MCMULLAN: Yeah. Yeah, apparently. But your dating profile is doing exactly what the cicadas do, right? Like attracting or repelling, I guess, depending on. But, yeah, a lot of people complain it sounds like tinnitus. People say, yeah, it's just loud, which is valid. It's 90 decibels, can get up to 90 decibels loud. So, but yeah, I think a lot of people associate it with the sound of summer. It's a, it's a, a joyful kind of constant in their, their summer life.

DINGMAN: What actually is happening when we hear the signature sound of the cicadas?

MCMULLAN: Yeah, it's super cool. So the backside of a male cicada only the males can make the, that signature sound. The females can click their wings and make kind of like a almost like a snapping sound. But the male cicada, so they have that backside and it's basically works kind of like a, a bagpipe and so that backside just kind of it, it's a, it's full of air and they, they flex it in and out and on their sides, kind of like where their ribs are located. They have something called tymbals and they look kind of like ribs but they function almost like a Solo cup, like, just like a big plastic cup. And so if you were to squeeze a Solo cup or something like that, it makes that horrible like [CLACK, CLACK] sound. And so it's basically that amplified by their, their wind bag backside at, you know, 300 clacks per, per second.

DINGMAN: Wow. And what are cicadas doing when they're making that sound? Are they communicating with each other?

MCMULLAN: Just like your Tinder profile, they're trying to find love. That's exactly what it is. So, they're trying to attract a mate. And, if, if the female cicada likes it enough, she'll come find them again like that, they'll make that clicking sound. They'll find each other. They communicate with each other. They mate and then the female eggs lays the eggs.

DINGMAN: So they were even more kindred spirits than I realized when I, when I had my dating profile. Wow. And, but other than the sound, which obviously, you know, there's no accounting for taste. Some people just don't like the sound. What do you think it is about cicadas that, that unnerves the cicada haters?

MCMULLAN: I think it's, I mean, they're, they're decent, a decent size so it's not like a fly or a mosquito or something like that. Like the, the body itself is about the size of your thumb. And so they can be pretty big and obviously they're really loud. And so if you pick one up or it flies on to you and it suddenly makes kind of like [AHHH] sound, it can be terrifying.

DINGMAN: Yes. The, it, it's, it's kind of the, the insect equivalent of the bark being worse than the bite. The bite is non-existent, right?

MCMULLAN: Right. Yeah. Yeah. No bite. No, no venom, no poison. They are totally docile. They can fly. That's about it.

DINGMAN: There's always been something very interesting to me about this idea that by the time you see a cicada and it makes this unforgettable sound, it has already lived the vast majority of its life, right?

MCMULLAN: Yeah. So different species have different lifespans, but periodical cicadas, for example, they live underground for 13 or 17, depending on the brood, years. And so really, they're only alive for like 4 to 6 weeks. It's a very small percentage. It's like less than 10% of their lives is above ground.

DINGMAN: You know, there's something very, and forgive me for being a total sap here, but there's something that's always felt so poetic about that when I think about my own associations with cicadas, which as you pointed out for me, it makes me think of summer when I was a kid after dinner, we would go out and all the kids in the neighborhood, we would play in the middle of the street and it seemed like the sun was never going to go down. It seemed like we could just go anywhere we wanted in the neighborhood and do whatever we wanted to do, we didn't have to put a coat on and there was just this blanket sound of the buzz of cicadas in the canopy of the trees.

And when I found out that that is kind of the sound of cicadas breathing their last breath, there was always something very powerful to me about the idea that, you know, I wait all year for this little two month period of summer when I can, when I can finally be who I want to be. And then I have to go back underground, emotionally speaking.

MCMULLAN: Yeah, it's beautiful. And I think one of the reasons even when Brood 10 came out in 2021, it was right after the pandemic. And so a lot of people really connected with the, the cicadas in that regard for, like they felt like they had been underground for 13 years, even though it's been barely 13 months or whatever it was. And so it was very cathartic for a lot of people like emergence. And even especially in a lot of Asian cultures, the cicadas are revered because it's kind of a symbol of, of resurrection and rebirth.

DINGMAN: If I'm not mistaken, Brood 10 is what originally inspired you to make graphic art about cicadas.

MCMULLAN: Yeah. So I'm originally from Maryland and so the Brood 10 is kind of my, my home cicadas and so I made a full on graphic novel. it's called "Cicadapocalypse." It goes through the story of these two squirrels who are originally terrified as the cicadas emerge and they try to bunker down and, and hide from them. But eventually they, they learned that, you know, cicadas are a boon to the ecosystem. They're helpful, et cetera, et cetera.

DINGMAN: Can you say more about that? What, what is it about cicadas that is good for the ecosystem? We've talked about, you know, kind of the qualitative poetic elements that, that we appreciate about them as humans. But what function do they serve in nature?

MCMULLAN: They feed a ton of predators basically is the, is the biggest role with cicadas. There is a boon in predators' population. So raccoons, turtles, things like that. In addition, like the additional poop and the additional like dead cicadas, all those things, kind of give nourishment to the ground and more vitamins and minerals, all that good stuff.

DINGMAN: I read somewhere that you can eat cicadas.

MCMULLAN: Yes. Yeah, you can definitely eat cicadas. So the nymph form is, I think a lot of people prefer because some people don't like the wings. But yeah, a lot of people will do them in stir frys, things like that. A lot of people refer to them as the shrimp of the earth and, or shrimp of the skies, however you wanna call that. But again, it's, they are a great food source. A lot of other cultures eat them. In America, you know, I think we've just seen them in media too much as like, oh, gross bugs. And again, they are beautiful. There's lots of different reasons to love them. They are kind of friendly and derpy. There's nothing, a good starter bug if you are originally afraid of bugs.

More stories from KJZZ

Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Dingman was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.