Week in the Underworld

by by Barry Elkinton


Bugs are crazy. My dad’s an entomologist so I can say this with some authority. Growing up my dad worked almost exclusively on the gypsy moth, which was cool, but spending hours every day with a famously virile species of invasive moth means that you become completely covered in their pheromones, which cannot be washed away and persist for years. So every spring during gypsy moth mating season, female moths would follow my dad around by the hundreds, landing on him and piling up in the back of his car. I thought this was normal but it was not. My dad was a gypsy moth sex god.

So, yeah, bugs work in mysterious ways. But there’s perhaps no greater entomological mystery than the North American cicada, which spends its entire life underground, only emerging once every 13 or 17 years depending on the brood. And get ready, because the cicadas are coming back this spring. After patiently feeding on roots since their conception in 1996, billions of so-called Brood II cicadas—one of the largest North American broods, stretching from North Carolina to Connecticut—are expected to emerge from their underground burrows in late April and early May. In some areas, including urban centers such as New York and Washington D.C., densities may even exceed one million per acre.

The whole point of this spectacle, of course, is sex. The deafening buzz of the cicada—which can exceed 100 dB—is the sound of the male courtship song. When a female likes a male’s tune, she clicks her wings to let him know she’s interested. After copulation, the female lays her eggs in the bark of a nearby tree. The rest, as they say, is history, and within a few weeks the entire brood dies as a new prime numbered cycle begins. According to entomologists, cicadas likely developed prime numbered emergence cycles as a way to prevent predators from synchronizing their population cycles to coincide with the cicada’s emergence. The fact that the numbers 13 and 17 only overlap every 221 years throws off predators by making it extremely rare for two broods to emerge in the same year.

Despite this incredible feat of evolution, cicadas have a bad reputation. Many people associate them with the evil locusts in the bible, though locusts are grasshoppers and cicadas are more like aphids. They do have scary red eyes and they are very loud but they will
not harm crops or bite children. Still, as we prepare for the coming invasion, there are a few things to keep in mind. You may want to avoid using power tools because female cicadas might mistake you for a male cicada and try and have sex with you. Harmless, but perhaps annoying. And don’t forget, cicadas are edible! Broiled, baked, or barbequed, they are an excellent source of protein, as my father would say. Apparently they taste like canned asparagus.—BE



Hell stinks, and there’s a swimming pool at the entrance.

At least, that’s what the ancient Romans thought. Last week, the ruins of the ceremonial gate to their hell—a noxious cave equipped with a bathing pool and religious buildings known as Plutonium—were unearthed by Italian archaeologists near the ruins of Hierapolis, an ancient city in present-day Turkey.

Earlier excavations at Hierapolis had yielded dozens of ruined structures. But when archaeologists dug deeper, retracing the route of an ancient spring back to its source, they found an opening in the earth—and right outside, the buried ruins of Plutonium.

Roman use of Plutonium dates to at least the first century AD, when Strabo, the Greek geographer, described the site in his Geographica. At that time, priests would offer animal sacrifices, and pilgrims would bathe in a constructed pool near the cave’s entrance. A small building nearby bore an inscription honoring the god of the underworld. The cause of the complex’s destruction, in the sixth century AD, is unclear—either it was torn down by Christians, destroyed by an earthquake, or both.

Alas, descending into the pit at Plutonium today won’t bring you any closer to the Horned One. There’s not much inside the cave—some stones, maybe, and the desiccated shells of ancient bugs that couldn’t find an exit. Hades is probably deeper down.

But what the site lacks in evil spirits, it makes up for in stench. Plutonium’s smell comes from the fumes that seep in from the back of the cavern. These underground vapors are hot, and they’re poisonous— so poisonous, in fact, that birds flocking to the entrance of the recently excavated site dropped dead out of the air. These deadly fumes, rich in carbon dioxide, convinced the Romans that here, near Hierapolis, lay the entrance to the underworld.

Plutonium was, naturally, a holy site, and in Roman times only the purest—only the chosen—could enter the cave itself. Obviously, that meant eunuchs. More specifically: the eunuchs of the fertility goddess Cybele. They had to hold their breath.

O men of Rome! Send not the corrupted into Plutonium! Let only the purest—the roundest and tubbiest—enter the Maw! —SPE