The Buzz on Cicadas: Sexuality and Sensationalism

Every several years, something remarkable happens in parts of the United States: billions of cicadas emerge from the earth in a natural spectacle, bringing the sky to life with hordes of buzzing, breeding insects. This year, however, the massive emergence of all seven distinct broods—something not seen since 1803—is being overshadowed by headlines that seem ripped from a science fiction novel. Stories of ‘gay zombie cicadas’ overtaken by a ‘creepy sexually transmitted fungus’ have flooded our feeds, blending fact with harmful sensationalism.

In this blog, we aim to set the record straight (no pun intended). We’ll delve into the truth about cicadas infected with the fungus Massospora cicadina, explaining the science without the sci-fi. However, it’s important to not just discuss these strange biological phenomena, but also how we talk about them. Sensationalized media coverage can often distort our understanding of wildlife and inadvertently perpetuate harmful stereotypes, particularly when it borrows terminology from human social context such as the queer community.

Science, Not Sci-Fi

Periodical cicadas are incredibly unique creatures, largely due to their extended—but somehow still brief—lives. These insects spend most of their lives underground as nymphs, emerging as adults in unison after a set number of years. Brood XIX, for example, emerges every 17 years while Brood XIII emerges every 13 years. Adults rush to reproduce in the spring before perishing just a few weeks later.

However, some of these cicadas will exhibit behaviors that are anything but typical, influenced by a fungal pathogen known as Massospora cicadina. This fungus infects cicadas during their underground phase or shortly after they emerge. As cicadas molt into their adult forms, the fungus begins to take effect, causing dramatic and visible changes to their bodies. A chalky white substance replaces the back third of their abdomen, including their reproductive organs, which are effectively lost to the infection.

An insect is turned on its side; underbelly exposed. Part of its thorax looks to be damaged and pieces missing.
A male periodical cicada infected with Massospora cicadina. The fungus has hollowed out and replaced the back half of the insect’s abdomen, including its genitals. Credit: TelosCricket/Wikimedia Commons

The fungus produces compounds that also alter the host’s normal behaviors. Despite the loss of their reproductive organs, infected males continue to engage in mating attempts—and more often than they normally would. They also begin to mimic the mating signals of females by flicking their wings in a way typically used to attract males. Both behaviors benefit the fungus by increasing interactions with other cicadas, therefore more quickly spreading the disease.

Sensationalism, Not Sexuality

While the biology of this fungus is indeed fascinating, the way it’s presented in media often distorts its interpretation. Describing infected cicadas as “zombies” or claiming that the fungus is “making cicadas gay” can not only detract from the actual (very interesting) science, but can also be harmful to the queer community. Such descriptions anthropomorphize the insects and misrepresent what is actually happening: a parasitic infection, not a change in identity.

It’s crucial to recognize that terms expressing human sexual orientation and identity carry significant cultural weight. Using these terms to describe non-human behavior for the sake of impressions trivializes serious and personal aspects of human identity. Using terms that define emotional human identity such as “gay” and “trans” to describe the physical sex and sexual physiology and behavior of an animal can be misleading and harmful to members of the queer community when it reinforces negative stereotypes. This is especially true when the rhetoric links queer identities with notions of disease, infection, and abnormality—themes that have historically been used to stigmatize, marginalize, and ‘justify’ real physical and emotional violence against the community.

You may remember this example: media personality Alex Jones once famously claimed that chemicals in the water were “turning the friggin’ frogs gay.” This assertion was a gross misinterpretation of a 2010 study from the University of California, Berkeley. The research actually demonstrated that atrazine, a commonly used herbicide, could disrupt endocrine function in frogs, causing male frogs to develop female-like characteristics and even produce eggs.

The study did not conclude that the frogs were becoming “gay,” but rather that their sexual development was being altered by unnatural chemical exposure caused by humans—unlike in other species such as clownfish and wrasses, where physical sex changes are a normal and necessary part of reproduction.

An outdoor brick wall has been painted with the words, "The chemicals in the water is turning the friggin' frogs gay".
New Orleans graffiti repeating Alex Jones’ infamous conspiracy theory. Credit: Bart Everson/Flickr

Jones’ sensational claim had broader implications beyond just spreading environmental misinformation. By framing the scientific discussion around chemicals affecting frog sexuality in such charged terms, the narrative fed into harmful stereotypes about the LGBTQ+ community. Linking chemical exposure to changes in sexual behavior played into age-old myths that being LGBTQ+ is inherently unnatural or the result of external ‘contamination.’ Such rhetoric not only drastically misrepresents the science but also perpetuates stigma, contributing to discrimination and undermining the efforts to promote understanding and acceptance of queer identities.

Respect, Not Rhetoric

The queer community’s fight for the ability to live their lives as their authentic selves without the threat of violence and discrimination is an ongoing and serious struggle, not a metaphor to be applied to insect pathology or chemical pollutants. Scientists, content creators, and laymen alike have the responsibility to use language that respects and honors both humans and wildlife.

This year’s total cicada emergence offers a unique opportunity to celebrate the cycle of life and all its complexities, but it also challenges us to reflect on how we communicate these phenomena. While we may be tempted to sensationalize, let’s stick to the facts—after all, the truth of the cicada’s bizarre saga needs no embellishment. And frankly, if any of us had to wait 17 years to make an appearance, we’d probably want our story told right, too.

Published: May 1, 2024