Forget murder hornets … now there are zombie cicadas

by Nick Gonzales

You can never have too many things to worry about … or, at least that seems to be the lesson that 2020 is trying to teach us, anyway. As if the “murder hornets” in the Pacific Northwest weren’t a scary enough thing to fear in the world of insects, there are apparently now zombie cicadas in West Virginia, too.

According to the journal PLOS Pathogens, the cicadas are infected with a fungus called Massospora, which spreads itself by taking over the cicadas brains using chemicals including psilocybin — which may sound familiar because it’s the same thing that causes hallucinations when you eat magic mushrooms — which we assume means that the bugs have a pretty trippy experience while the fungi takeover is happening.

Infected male cicadas flick their wings like a female would if it were calling for a mate. Healthy male cicadas, overcome by lust, then try to mate with the zombie cicadas and become infected as well, thus spreading the fungus.

In this way, it’s totally a sexually-transmitted infection.

Fungi controlling bugs isn’t anything new though. Ophiocordyceps unilateralis takes over ants in tropical areas, forcing them to climb to areas just above the forest floor, and attach themselves to the bottoms of leaves with a death grip that keeps them there even after they die. Meanwhile, a fruiting body grows out of the ant’s head, eventually rupturing and releasing spores to infect more ants. Cordyceps also infect a variety of insects and arthropods, growing and consuming the bug from the inside until a blade-like mushroom eventually sprouts from their dead heads.

If you play video games and Cordyceps sounds familiar, it’s because the outbreak of a mutant species that infects people, turning them into blind zombie-like creatures, forms the basis for the 2013 action-adventure game “The Last of Us,” as well as its sequel, which just came out this summer.

So, yeah … that’s basically already a thing in the bug world and has been for ages — though the way that Massospora spreads is a bit less horrific (relatively speaking — I mean almost nobody wants a fungus to take over their brain, at least not permanently).

If anybody would like to make a video game in which a mutant strain of Massospora infects people, and the main point of the combat in the game is that the player has to resist their urge to mate with the zombie … we’re down to at least play-test the game for you.

Of course, zombie bugs are far from the scariest insects running around these days. Like we mentioned before, nature decided now was the perfect time to let us North Americans know murder hornets, or Asian giant hornets, are a thing. In Japan, the hornets, which can grow up to a couple inches long, kill up to 50 people a year. So that’s something to look forward to.

Of course, we’ve had terrifying bugs around us all along. Remember how in the ’90s everyone thought killer Africanized honey bees were going to be our undoing? They were found in both the Utah and New Mexican San Juan counties in 2010, and in Palisade in 2014. So they’re, like, already here and we barely even knew.

Enjoy the next picnic you have. And don’t touch any infected cicadas while you’re out there.

Nick Gonzales

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