Cicadas in the United States are infected by fungal amphetamines that will drive them yet again to engage in sex-crazed mating orgies. Massospora cicadina, a yellow-white fungus, grows in the insects’ bodies and boosts their sex drives to the point of mania. It also makes their genitals fall off.
This isn’t a new phenomenon; VICE News has covered the sex-crazed cicada summer for the past two years. But the 2021 iteration is upon us, and billions of Brood X cicadas are currently emerging, for the first time in 17 years, in 15 states across North America, where they’re expected to spend four to six weeks mating before all of them drop dead.
And Massospora – laced with psilocybin, the same chemical as psychedelic mushrooms, and capable of producing compounds of an amphetamine called cathinone, or “bath salts” – is making some cicadas want to mate more than usual.
Find out more about 2020’s sex-crazed cicada summer below:
Massospora is known to lie dormant in the soil where some cicadas spend years of their lives, and in some cases infect the insects before they rise to the surface. The fungus then grows inside the cicadas’ abdomens as they start to shed their skins, filling their insides, until the lower abdomen drops away and a "white plug of fungus" starts to grow in its place.
Shortly thereafter, the fungus puts the cicadas’ libidos into hyperdrive, and the insects start wanting to have sex with as many potential mates as they can.
“This is stranger than fiction,” Matt Kasson, an associate professor of forest pathology and mycology at West Virginia University, told NPR. “To have something that's being manipulated by a fungus, to be hypersexual and to have prolonged stamina and just mate like crazy.”
All of this so that the fungus can promote its own propagation. Although the infected and castrated cicadas’ mating attempts are clearly unsuccessful, the fungus itself is sexually transmissible. As Brian Lovett, a postdoctoral researcher at West Virginia University who co-wrote a 2020 study about the fungus, told the Washington Post: “Now the cicada is not acting in the interest of the cicada, but in the interest of the fungus.”
Infected cicadas also spread spores of Massospora as they walk and fly – in turn infecting other insects and earning them the name “flying salt shakers of death.”
Broadly speaking, though, the fungus doesn’t appear to be dangerous to the cicada species at large. Lovett said he expects fewer than 10 percent to be infected, and that even those don’t typically die any younger as a result of infection. Nor does Massospora appear to inflict much suffering on the infected cicadas themselves.
“Everybody's having a good time while they're infected,” said Kasson. “So I don't imagine there's much pain – maybe a desire to listen to the Grateful Dead or something like that, but no pain.”
Kasson also noted that it isn’t uncommon for people to eat the fungal cicadas for mind-altering experiences of their own – although he didn’t recommend it. “There’s always a risk in eating cicadas pump-filled with amphetamines,” he said, according to The Guardian. “That was just one of a thousand compounds we found in the cicadas, and we don’t know what those other compounds are capable of doing to humans.”
The main takeaway, then, is that for the next month or so there are likely to be millions of castrated and sex-crazed zombie cicadas, high on amphetamines from a psychedelic fungus, flying around parts of the U.S. in desperate search of a mate. And, it bears repeating: you shouldn’t eat them for a buzz.
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