Sign up to Confetti to get all the best bits straight to your inbox

Summer chorus

It’s not really summer until the cicada chorus starts singing. Melody Thomas gives us the goss on the kihikihi.

Name: Chorus cicada
Māori name: Kihikihi, kihikihi wāwā, matua kihikihi, tarakihi or ngengeti.
Scientific name: Amphipsalta zelandica
Status: Endemic

Description: There are 42 known species of cicada in New Zealand, all of which are endemic, and the chorus cicada is both the most common and the largest (averaging about 40mm). Chorus cicadas are coloured a combination of black, green and brown and often have stripes along their body. They can be identified by a turquoise patch at the base of their wings.

Habitat: Female chorus cicadas lay rice-sized eggs in a herring-bone pattern on thin tree branches. The eggs take between three and 10 months to hatch, after which the larvae burrow into the ground, where they grow and develop into ‘nymphs’ over two to four years. Once nymphs are at full size they emerge from the ground, climbing up the nearest plant or tree and waiting until their skin hardens and eventually bursts, allowing the adult cicada to back out. A cicada will last three to four weeks in adult form − just enough to mate and get the next life cycle started.

Look/listen: Kihikihi make their appearance in late summer, providing the cacophonous soundtrack to our warmest weeks. Only male cicadas sing, usually in order to court females, and songs vary widely between species. Male cicadas sing using “tymbals”, or ribbed membranes on each side of the base of their abdomen, and have large air sacs in their abdomens which amplify this song. The wāwā in the Māori name kihikihi wāwā means ‘to roar like the sound of heavy rain’.

Tell me a story: The cicada’s short adult life and celebratory song captured the imagination of many storytellers. One Māori tale tells how, in the later days of summer, popokorua (ant) advised kihikihi to store up food for the coming winter period. Kihikihi paid no attention, choosing instead to cling to sun-warmed bark and sing his joyous song, watching as foolish popokorua wasted the beautiful days. But when winter came, popokorua was snug and well fed in his underground home and kihikihi perished, hungry and cold. In Plato’s ‘Phaedrus’, a conversation between Socrates and his student Phaedrus is repeatedly interrupted by cicada song. At one point Socrates tells a story about how cicadas came to be: when a group of men became so intoxicated by the music of the Muses that they forgot to eat or drink. The men sang until they died, after which the muses reincarnated them as cicadas so they might continue their song and also spy on humans, reporting back as to who honoured the Muses and who did not.

First published in Capital issue #58
More Stories
Roll up, roll up!
%d bloggers like this: