Lazy mutts and long-lived insects dominate the dog days

Lazy mutts and long-lived insects dominate the dog days

My hound dog, Frank, was stretched out like a side of beef on the cool sandstone patio beside my back porch this afternoon. Having neither intention nor desire to do much else, he spent the duration of the day there within a few feet of a thermometer that proved him a wise, if somewhat unmotivated beast. Never one to discount my own mutt as anything less than a genius in a black and tan lab coat, I surmised Frank was celebrating the dog days of summer.

Even though similar scenes can be witnessed under shade trees all across the Northern Hemisphere at this time of year, the dog days designation is not a reference to canine behavior but is instead a nod to a celestial cycle that happens to frequently correspond with the hottest, muggiest days of the year.

Beginning this year on July 3 and ending on Aug. 11, the star Sirius, the brightest star in our night sky, appears to rise and fall with the sun. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed the added “punch” of energy from Sirius — also known as the Dog Star for its position within the constellation Canis Major (the Latin for “Big Dog”) — brought about the oppressively hot days of the period. More of an interesting coincidence than hard science, the legend nevertheless lives on.

It doesn’t take a hound dog laying in the shade to remind me summertime is hitting its full stride. As a matter of fact, one of the clearest reminders we’re hitting the peak of it all is what we would call, as kids, “the sound of summer” — the song of the dog days cicada whirring from treetops all about the neighborhood.

For whatever reason, the kids in my neighborhood mistakenly called the overtly bug-eyed, gossamer, winged insects locusts. In those baby-boom days of backyard running, mud-hole rolling, kick-the-can playing childhood independence, there was no one around to tell us any different. It was not until I saw the “plague of locusts” descend on Pharaoh’s Egypt while watching “The Ten Commandments” with my folks that I learned locusts were pretty much the same as grasshoppers. Cicadas have very little in common with the biblical scourge.

It turns out cicadas, while not owning the fame of a biblical reference, do hold a distinctive title as the world’s longest living insects. As we well know, from “hatches” in our recent lifetime, some species of cicada emerge as adults in their 17th year of life to wreak havoc on young trees and windshields all across the land.

Interestingly, while cicadas can be found on every continent except for Antarctica, “periodical” cicadas occur only in North America. There are four different and distinct “brood cycles” of the 17-year cicada here in Ohio that typically emerge in late May or early June. For all cicadas the adult stage represents a tiny fragment of the insect’s total lifetime and lasts only two to four weeks.

Annual cicadas that sport a somewhat abbreviated lifetime of only three to five years crawl from the earth on the cusp of the dog days in early July and promptly slip from their outgrown exoskeletons, dry their wings on fence posts, picnic tables and telephone poles, then ascend into the tree tops where they sing out their souls in hopes of finding a mate. In doing so, they remind kids like me summertime is a gift of endless opportunities constrained by a finite number of days, and those days are winding down like those last, breathless minutes before the porch light flicks on.

Remember, if you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email jlorson@alonovus.com. You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.