Friday, 5 August 2011

Singing lessons

(Cicadas; photo from internet)

In summer, on Greek islands like Lesvos, the number of inhabitants doubles or even triples. This results in more noise in the streets. The holidaying youth have all the time in the world to go around on their noisy motorbikes, car rental companies put hundreds of cars on the roads, cabs race up and down the streets (unless they are striking as they have these last three weeks) and Greeks from the mainland fill up the summer car parks.

Not only the heat, but also this noise makes living in the city in the summer unenviable. Better to live in nature. But even there the summer months can be pretty noisy. In a way nature is a cacophony of sounds, especially in summer, when the cicadas use the hot air to sing loudly.

This week I wanted to write about these noisy guys and when I started to search the internet for more information I fell upon the column Singing Cicadas of the Muses of Pieria written by Nina Fotiadou
(Zingende cicaden van de Muzen van Pieria). She has written everything I wanted to tell you about the cicadas, so there’s no use for me to write that column again. Since her piece is only available in Dutch, I refer you to the Wikipedia page about Cicadas.

In any case, I would not have been able to write as entertaining a story as Nina Fotiadou did, because amongst other things she writes how the muses of Pieria, living on Mount Olympos close to the Greek Gods, created the cicadas. But Lesvos is far away from that sacred mountain in the mainland Greece and, as far as I know, no muses are living here creating crickets. Oops, now I have made a mistake: I mean cicadas!

Crickets and cicadas are often confused. So the first thing I did when starting to write about them was to observe which of these noisy guys I have here at my house. Very clearly they are cicadas. Not only are they far more loud than crickets, they also produce their music quite differently. They use their muscles to vibrate plates on their bodies, whilst the cricket produces his music by moving his wings along a kind of plate on his legs; these last movements are called stridulation.

Can you believe that Crickets and cicadas were popular pets in ancient times? When I was young I learned that the emperors of China used to have nightingales as pets, but they also had crickets and cicadas for their entertainment. Although I can’t imagine that while drinking a cup of tea you could possibly enjoy the sound of a cicada. Your eardrums start shaking as soon as you approach such an insect.

Crickets make a much softer noise that sounds more lovely to the ears. And to think that all those historians would mix up crickets and cicadas! Listen to this conversation between crickets and cicadas and when the cicada comes in at the second line, you will immediately recognize which insect is dominating the conversation: Crickets & Cicades Conversation. My ears are still hurting from listening to them over the computer!

Many stories from Greek history however did mix up crickets and cicadas, for example the story by Aesop about the Ant and the Cicada. This fable occasionally even named a third insect often confused with a cricket or a cicada: the Ant and the Grasshopper. I was amazed to learn that some grasshoppers also sing. This is not the eating sound they produce when they attack those tasty green leaves: some grasshoppers also know how to stridulate. However their sound is much less loud than that of the crickets and cicadas.

While writing this I am trying to distinguish the different sounds in the ongoing concert in my garden: do I hear a cricket or a cicada and are there some grasshoppers singing with them? This morning there is a little breeze from the sea cooling off the heat wave and the insects sing less. The warmer it is, the louder they are. I feel is unfair because when we humans, exhausted by the heat and after a healthy lunch, wish to have a little siesta in the afternoon, it is right at that hottest part of the day, that the cicadas get ready to play the highlight of their daily concert. And believe me, trying to sleep in a hammock hanging between two trees that are occupied by cicadas is no option at all.

The loudness of their music is related to the temperature. In America there is a cricket (snowy tree cricket) that you can use to calculate the temperature in Fahrenheit: Dolbear’s law. You just add 40 to the times the cricket chirps in 14 seconds. Well, I have my own law: when the cicadas cry so loud that you can’t understand any conversation, the temperature is well over 30o C. Warning: Julie’s law is not scientifically proven.

In the evening you are not as bothered by their singing. But then you are attacked by hundreds of noiseless moths and sometimes by strange flying green triangles that pass with a sound of a small jet. This is the southern stinking bug (Nezara viridula) of which there are plenty here thanks to the growing of vegetables in the neighbourhood. They just love vegetables. They make short flights and during those short distances they open their motors full.

I was once bothered by an insect that looked like one of those remote- controlled toy helicopters. It suddenly hung before my nose, humming with little flying movements, as if there were children hidden in the bushes piloting it and amusing the whole company sitting around the table. I only saw this flying insect with propellers once and now, when I try to remember what it looked like, I only see a small helicopter.

When you start to pay attention to all these insects you enter an amazing world full of bright colours, futuristic formed wings, antennae, shields and electronic sounding music. When you are suffering from a heat wave you can easily be disturbed by these harsh noises. But other than that, here we have free daily concerts that make you feel like a Chinese emperor enjoying the sound of his singing pets. The summer brings a wonderful world of strange musicians.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

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