Catching cicadas

Catching cicadas

As night falls, a forest hot spring becomes the eerie scene of an unusual hunt

PONGPET MEKLOY

As the sky darkens and stars begin to shine, the hot spring at Jae Son National Park, Lampang province is illuminated by torchlight. Cicadas swarm around the mineral-laden water, and villagers swarm around the cicadas, who are about to become food.

Every year, from around mid-March to mid-April, this particular species of cicada swarms around the hot spring at Jae Son National Park.

It’s a scene that’s repeated often here, every year from around mid-March to mid-April.

“You just aim the torchlight at them and they stop still. Then you simply pick them up from the ground,” said a middle-aged man, adding that it never takes him long to fill a plastic bag with the insects.

“There are so many of them. You can see even more cicadas if you come when the moon is full and bright and the wind is calm.”

Like this man, many villagers bring the cicadas home for family consumption. Some, however, catch the creatures just for fun. And others, for additional income. This year, the price at a local market is 10 baht per 20 cicadas.

The annual cicada collection at Jae Son hot spring has taken place for generations, long before the area was declared a national park. Yet, besides the knowledge that the insect can be found at this time of year and that they are a yummy source of protein, much about them is still a mystery.

“Locals call them chakkachan namrae (mineral water cicada). Their scientific name is Platylamia radha,” said Leela Kayikananta, senior scientist at the Royal Forest Department. Acharn Leela, as park officials and workers call her, has been studying various insects at Jae Son for the past seven years.

“At least five species of cicada can be found around the park’s headquarters. But only the chakkachan namrae visit the hot spring,” said the entomologist, adding that the life cycle of this particular species has not yet been seriously studied.

Using its slender sucking tube, the cicada is able to “drink” the mineral-rich water from wet soil.

“Much of a cicada’s life is spent underground, in their juvenile stages (as larvae and nymphs). Like other species, the nymphs of the chakkachan namrae must live in the soil somewhere in the forest. But we don’t know exactly where,” said Acharn Leela, explaining that at some point in their life cycle the cicada nymphs dig their way out of the ground and undergo a final moult to become winged adults.

“Moulting usually takes place half a metre or so above the ground, on a tree or other vegetation near the point where the nymph emerged,” she said. “If we were able to find the nymph skin the insect had shed, we would have some idea where it had been living in its earlier stages.”

Asked if the chakkachan namrae could become extinct from over-collection, Acharn Leela paused for awhile and said: “I don’t think so. For one thing, the collection has been going on for decades and the number of the cicadas hasn’t seemed to fall very much.

“Also, it’s mostly male cicadas that visit the hot spring. In every 1,000 cicadas caught, only a couple or so are females. Perhaps the cicadas have already mated, and the females don’t show up at the hot spring because they’re busy laying eggs somewhere in the forest.

“But this is just an assumption. It doesn’t mean that the species can’t be wiped out,” she said. “It would help if we knew more about them.”

According to a park official, villagers are allowed to collect the chakkachan namrae every night except on weekends, when the park is full of tourists.

“At the moment, we allow people to collect the cicadas for as long as they want. But I plan to propose that they do so in rounds _ say, for just 15 minutes an hour _ so the insects won’t shun the place because of excessive human presence.

“Besides, I think we should give the cicadas some time to enjoy the water. That’s what they’re here for,” the official said.

As morning arrives at the hot spring, the cicadas disappear into the surrounding forest.

That idea would concur with traditional practice, according to one villager.

“Thirty years ago, when I was a teenager, villagers were more organised. Cicada catchers entered the hot spring in rounds,” he said. “And the good thing about that practice is that the insects taste a lot better if we let them drink the mineral water first. These days, people catch them too soon and I don’t think they are as delicious as they used to be.”

He has also noticed that in recent years the chakkachan namrae have started to scatter to other places besides the hot spring.

“These days, you can also see them visiting tomato plantations outside the forest,” he said. “I don’t know why exactly, but some people say they may be attracted by a certain chemical in the fertiliser that smells like the water from the hot spring.”

Some villagers have been able to lure the cicadas to their land using black lights (fluorescent lamps that emit ultraviolet rays), he said. “That way, they can collect the insects right in their own backyard.”

It is obvious that the future of these chakkachan namrae is uncertain. But since villagers and the local economy can benefit from the insects in more ways than by just eating them _ the insect could be used to boost tourism like Australia’s koala and kangaroo, for example _ systematic study on the species is necessary.

Only with proper information can these cicadas be preserved while, at the same time, the best use is made of them.

CICADA FACTS

- Cicadas don’t bite. They can’t _ their mouth is designed for sucking fluids.

- The winged form of cicadas is merely the final phase of their existence. Adult cicadas live only from a few days to a few weeks, depending on the species. The insects spend most of their lives underground as larvae and nymphs. During these juvenile stages, they feed on sap from tree roots.

- Some might find this hard to believe but it has been recorded that certain cicada species spend more than a decade in the subterranean world before finally emerging from the ground. TheĀ Magicicada septendecula of North America, for example, is said to have a life cycle of 17 years.

- Cicadas produce their din by rapidly vibrating a drum-like membrane located on each side of the body. Only males make this noise.

- You can’t tell whether a cicada is a male or a female by looking at its face. But you can know by the shape of its abdomen _the male’s is clearly longer than the female’s. Besides, the abdomen of a female is equipped with an egg-laying apparatus which is, of course, absent in the male.

- Male cicadas die soon after mating. Females live a little bit longer because they need to finish laying their eggs.

Bangkok Post Monday 22 April 2002