Call of the Cicada

The song of summer evenings is has risen to a blaring ruckus: It is the call of the cicadas.

Familiar as that noise is, there’s some serious confusion about the bugs that create it. Here in the Midwest, we refer to them colloquially and erroneously as locusts; really, locusts have nothing to do with cicadas and are much more like grasshoppers behaving with mob mentality.

And adding to the locust-cicada confusion is the common knowledge that cicadas are only supposed to emerge  every 17 years, lying in wait underground. But those periodical cicadas aren’t the only cicada there is—there are all kinds of cicadas out there, and most of them are annual visitors.

In Missouri, the Dog Day Cicada, Swamp Cicada, and Scissor-Grinder are a few that make their presence loud and clear from the moment the heat begins to creep into the day. Their noise grows louder all afternoon and crests, finally, in a wild and desperate whir just before nightfall.

Nothing evokes late summer like that loud and longing whine. The cicadas sing their loudest in this month of August, just before the intense certainty of summer heat, summer green, and summer humidity begins to fade. With September’s arrival they will gradually quiet, dropping out of the chorus one by one until the evenings are calm. In the same way that their raucous shriek grows as the light disappears from the sky, their ringing rises to its peak as summer starts to fade. When they leave, they carry the life out of the air with them, having sung the season to sleep with commanding fanfare.

Deafening August

Mid-August.  So it’s back-to-school and pools closing and cinnamon brooms appearing at the grocery stores. We adjust our consumables to match the false ending that the beginning of the school year creates. But summer is a long ways from over. The constant hum of bugs will tell you that much—crickets in the morning, cicadas in the evening, katydids in the night. And this week will see some of the season’s most hot and humid days yet.

August is the month that demands to be seen. It’s wet and hot and loud; like a big fat final har-umph before abundant summer starts to give in to tempered autumn. Here in St. Louis, August is so humid that tropical plants thrive on patios and at the Botanical Garden. Anyone who spends time outside knows that autumn is still a distant thought in the mind of the natural world. Nobody can smell it coming on the wind just yet—we must stand in the smell of our own sweat and bugspray until deafening August has had its say.

Harvesting Honey

In the world of beekeeping, late July and early August is harvest season. Spring and summertime means hard work for honeybees, just as it does for farmers. Bees depend on pollen for a food source, and they won’t leave the hive once the temperature drops below 40 degrees. That means they have to produce like crazy all summer long to make sure the hive has enough food to survive the winter.

So the bees process some of their pollen to make the nectar they eat, and for some of it they create little wax caps so they can save it for later. Over time, this capped nectar loses some of its moisture. And that’s when it becomes sweet, thick, golden honey.

They depend on that honey as a source of food throughout the winter, so you would think it would harm them when we harvest it. But the bees produce a huge amount of extra. Even a modest hive will produce 30 pounds of honey or more. The bees don’t set a certain quantity and then stop when they reach it. They just push forward, full speed ahead, until the last flower has died and they can push no more. Beekeepers can calculate how much honey their hive will need to survive the winter and harvest the excess with that in mind. Even if the worst does happen, and they notice that the bees are running low on their stores, they can feed sugar water to the hive to help supplement the honey.

To harvest honey, the bees must first be encouraged to leave the super, which is the section of the hive where their extra food supply is stored. Different methods can be used to get the bees to migrate to different parts of the hive. Bees have a powerful sense of smell, so the easiest way to get them to leave is to fill the super with a scent they don’t like, like smoke or almond extract. Then the frames are inspected to pick the best candidates for harvest. For the bees’ sake, the friendliest way to get to the honey is just to remove the caps. If only the caps are removed, the bees won’t have to rebuild the whole honeycomb structure when they get their frames back. Lastly, the frames have to be spun at a high speed to get the honey to run out, and as soon as it’s run through a simple mesh filter, it’s ready to sell, just the way it is.

Beekeeping has been going on for a very long time. We have images of humans collecting honey from as long as 10,000 years ago. It’s not hard to believe, though. Can you imagine what a discovery it was to stumble upon rich, sweet, liquid gold? Anyone would put up with a few stings to get their hands on that.

Wildflowers Dominate

This kind of heat isn’t friendly to fragile beauty. Mild weather flowers and cool weather crops have burnt brown in the sun. A humid evening at a summer wedding has the groomsmen itching in their suits and the bridesmaids sweating off their makeup. It’s a hard thing to look shipshape in late July.

But not all living things are deterred by this weather. At this time of year, the wildflowers thrive. Primrose, cardinal flower, and columbine endure in rocky glades and creek beds. Vibrant butterfly weed and blazing star dominate the prairies. The coneflowers are particularly radiant, shooting up past the sky-high grass to get their daily dose of sun.

These flowers are a far cry from a delicate iris or a fragrant rose. They’re sometimes scraggly, often unkempt. But they require no attention and get on just fine without us. In midsummer, they overtake our wild landscapes. They know summer is no time for measured elegance. It is for growth, for life, for movement, for color. A time to leave the air conditioning behind and to jump in the pool, sweat in the sun, and, when the night comes down, to lay down expended in the dew-soaked grass.

Summer’s Smells

Each season has its own scent, but midsummer must be the time of year when the smells are the strongest in the city. On a Saturday morning, cut grass tickles your nose when the neighbor’s lawnmower hums you awake. On a weekday morning, when the trash pickup comes, the whole neighborhood stinks with the rotten smell of sun-cooked garbage. The warm smell of wet pavement hangs around for your day at the zoo, in the amusement park, on the blacktop at summer school. A fresh sweat follows you with every outdoor hour. The smell of charcoal brings the evening in as you drive home through the neighborhoods. Bug spray and citronella are threaded into a tiki-torch-lit twilight.

Spring’s perfume is delicate; autumn’s fresh; winter’s subtle. But summer demands attention. In the city, summer’s aroma is made by humans. Summer smells like us because it is the season we spend outside. What would summer be without cut grass, bug spray, sunscreen?

Have you ever wandered far off the path in Forest Park and smelled the hot grass sweetened by the sweltering sun? Or walked through the Botanical Garden on a day so hot that you could smell the lavender simmering in the heat? These are the smells of summer that exist with or without us, riding on the breeze even when there’s not a nose in sight to sniff the air.

Dog Days

The heat has arrived. Some plants and people thrive in this sun; others scorch and wither. Early mornings offer little reprieve from the broil, and the nights are heavy with humidity. This is prime pool season, prime drink-from-the-hose season, prime ice-cube-on-your-forehead season.

These are the dog days of summer—a phrase that comes from the rise of the dog star Sirius, who peeks over the eastern horizon just before the sunrise. Ancient astrology associated the appearance of Sirius with drought, fever, bad weather, and bad luck. Maybe so, but for us these days are equally intertwined with a kind of careless fun that can only be had when the cold–the huddling, the bundling, the turning inward and away– seems an impossible ache of a distant past. There is something about the cold that makes us shrink. But the heat—if you stand in it long enough to sweat your shirt through—will make you want to stretch your legs and shed your clothes and indulge in being alive.

Whether or not you know where the phrase “dog days of summer” came from, you know exactly what it means. You can feel the arrival in the sweat on your back and hear it in the rising buzz of insects in the cattails.

June Bugs

In St. Louis, the June Bug is an annual summer visitor. When they first arrive, they startle you tapping on the window. They whack and crack on the glass until you get up to see who’s at the door; then you remember the yearly summer flight of these brown beetles.

These bugs are harmless to humans but unpopular nonetheless. In large numbers, they can damage lawns or crops. They make people squirm when they bombard porchlights and screen doors. Their armored little bodies and thorny little legs give them an unsettling prehistoric look.

But have no doubt: they aren’t going anywhere. They were here long before we were. Every year, they will announce their arrival with a buzz straight into a brick wall. And they’ll depart in a lifeless parade, floating down the lazy river and into the filters of the community pool.