The Most Singular Orchestra on Earth

The musician drew his thigh over the teeth of a saw and began to bow a six-beat phrase. Another instrumentalist came in on a belly drum, amplifying a low tattoo into a siren-like wail. A third snapped his head against a wooden board, and a fourth, lying on his back with his feet in the air, made music by arching his spine. Most of this group can be heard around the summer world in every field and hedge, for the musicians are a grasshopper, a cicada, a death-watch beetle, and a click beetle, the conspicuous soloists of this orchestra. You can listen to a fuller ensemble on any summer night on the stage they prefer—hot grass, dry earth, and, for good measure, an August moon quivering in a sea of heat.

Familiar to almost everyone are the crickets with their fat bodies, long antennae, big heads—and their endearing habit of singing from the hearth and doorstep. Crickets sing with a distinctive “creeeak, creeeak,” produced by rubbing a scraper on the left wing against a file on the right. Cricket songs have meaning. Some are love calls, others are danger signals, and others are simply “I am here” ditties.

Grasshoppers, known in the Bible as locusts, use their thighbones as bows. A grasshopper, standing on his “hands,” lifts his big back legs until the femurs rub against a line of small stiff pegs on the wing. This produces that dead-battery sound in the summer meadow. The grasshopper also has a flight song. As he takes off, he snaps his two big top wings against the smaller inside ones and produces that familiar crackle of grasshopper jumps.

The katydid is a handsome, brilliant-green creature, with long, graceful antennae. He makes music by lifting his wings and running the edge of one over some 70 sawlike points on the other. In the base of their wings, they possess a miniaturized amplifier, less than one eighth of an inch in size, composed of chitin, the substance from which the strong outside skeleton of the insect is made. Thinner than paper, yet stronger than a comparable thickness of steel, this tiny disk-shaped device can amplify an almost inaudible scratch into a crackling “zeep” that will carry a mile.

The loudest members of the insect orchestra are the “drummers” that literally beat one object against another. The cicadas are the classical drummers. Those with the two-year cycle are about an inch and a quarter long, chunky, often with beautiful crystal wings. The sounds they make are courtship calls, a buzz saw high in the treetops that begins softly and rises to a frantic, earsplitting climax.

Of all the drummers, the death-watch beetle is the most astonishing, for this musician hits his head on wood to beat a tune. He does this on woodwork and old furniture. These clicking concerts can go on for years.

Then there are the “incidental musicians.” These are the flies, bees, and mosquitoes. One study of a housefly revealed that it whines the note F in the middle octave by vibrating its wings 21,120 times a minute.

Bees and wasps also use their wings to create sounds. They hum when peacefully gathering food, “pipe” when calling to mates, and “roar” when attacked.

Humming, crackling, drumming, roaring—in the soft August sun—the band plays on.

Excerpts from Our Amazing World of Nature, Its Marvels and Mysteries, Jean George, 36–38.

“We will sing to stringed instruments all the days of our life, at the house of the Lord.” Isaiah 38:20 RV

Who knows. Maybe God’s little orchestra will join with the saints in singing praises to our Creator.