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Saturday, July 13, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Emergence convergence: Illinois summer starts with cicada celebrations

Two broods of cicadas emerging in Illinois this month haven't come out of the ground at the same time since 1803 — and won't emerge together again until 2245.

CHICAGO (CN) — Domingo Dominguez carefully pins a dead cicada onto a piece of foam board. It's Friday night in Chicago, and in the basement of a small taxidermy and nature museum called the Insect Asylum, the insect enthusiast is teaching about a dozen students how to set their own specimens.

"You're going to want your needle half and half," they explain. "So half going in and half coming out the other side."

Domingo Dominguez, who professed a lifelong fascination with taxidermy, lead Chicago students Friday in posing and pinning their own periodical cicadas. (Dave Byrnes / Courthouse News)

The students at the Insect Asylum's cicada pinning workshop came from near and far to attend. Some lived in the city, others were visiting from the suburbs — one father and daughter pair even trekked all the way down from Ontario.

All were at the museum to get a taste of a rare ecological event that hasn't been seen in the U.S. since 1803, and isn't expected to occur again until 2245: the near-simultaneous emergence of two broods of periodical cicadas.

There's the 13-year Brood XIX, whose populations are scattered across several states in the southeast and along the Mississippi River, and the 17-year Brood XIII, more tightly clustered to the south and west of Lake Michigan. The geographic range of the broods doesn't overlap much, but Illinois is home to both populations — and for many state residents they've been impossible to ignore.

Even deep in Chicago, where sightings of the noisy insects can be rare outside of a few parks, their buzz is inescapable. Cicada news stories, cicada ice cream, cicada sculptures, even cicada yoga. Everywhere you look, people seem to have cicadas on the mind.

"I've probably done about 30 appearances on the news, on podcasts ... people are curious and looking for more answers," said Nina Salem, the founder of the Insect Asylum.

Students at the Insect Asylum were given their pick of a collection of deceased cicada specimens to pin. (Dave Byrnes / Courthouse News)

Salem personally collected the dead cicada specimens the students were pinning on Friday, and she wasn't the only one to go hunting for them.

"I have a bunch in the freezer right now," said Alexis Ellers, another pinning workshop attendee.

South of the Asylum and the rest of Chicago's concrete sprawl, many Illinoisans have had more visceral brushes with the broods.

"I keep hearing stories of people's dogs throwing up because they ate so many cicadas," said Kacie Athey, an entomology researcher with the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

"From personal experience, they're actually pretty tasty," she added.

Athey explained that unlike the annual "dog day" cicadas whose droning songs are ubiquitous to late Midwest summers, the periodical cicadas began emerging in May and will likely be dead by the end of June.

Soil temperatures above 64 degrees Fahrenheit in late spring trigger the periodical cicada juveniles — called nymphs — to dig themselves out after more than a decade living underground. There may be billions or even trillions of individual periodical cicadas spread over the U.S. this year, all looking to molt and mate before their short adult lives run their course.

"There were so many coming out that Nina said they were falling over each other," Dominguez told their students. "Some were even mis-molting because they were just being crushed under a big pile of their siblings."

"I went on two different field studies to collect the specimens," Salem confirmed to Courthouse News separately. "There's a phenomenal amount of cicadas in Illinois right now. I couldn't try to put a number on it ... there's just an abundance of them."

Emerging in such huge numbers, and with such synchronicity, is part of the cicadas' survival strategy. It ensures that at least some portion of the adults will survive to mate and lay their eggs, even if many end up as food for other animals.

On the upper floors of the Insect Asylum, staff watched over a few surviving individuals as they lived out what was left of their time.

The offspring of this year's Broods XIX and XIII survivors will live underground for another 13 and 17 years respectively, before coming out to molt and breed themselves. Despite the adult insects only living for a few weeks above ground, Athey said their impact on the local environment is substantial.

"They affect food webs over the short term because they're a huge burst of energy," Athey said. "They're this big infusion of nutrients for other animals that eat them."

Salem can also attest to the insects' impact on the environment in a different way. Some cicadas that aren't eaten by birds and fish — or people and dogs — will become hosts for the parasitic fungus Massospora Cicadina.

These fungus-infected bugs are the so-called "zombie" cicadas. The fungus eats away at the cicadas' genitals, but similar to how some Ophiocordyceps funguses puppeteer ants, it compels them to keep trying to mate in order to spread its own spores.

Salem reported seeing webs of mycelium where these zombie cicadas finally died and fell to the ground, spreading from their downed carcasses. She showed the taxidermy students on Friday her collection of these "zombie" cicadas, easily identifiable by the spongy white mass that had replaced part of the bugs' abdomens.

These "zombie" cicadas, before their deaths, were host to a fungal infection that ate away at their abdomens. (Dave Byrnes / Courthouse News)

"The fungus, if it roots in the soil, will actually develop in the area," Salem said. "[The cicadas] were fully encased in this web."

Dying as a fungal zombie notwithstanding, Athey explained that the periodical broods were fairly resilient. However, deforestation and climate change are looming pressures on their numbers, she said, as they need woody material like trees or shrubs to lay their eggs. But even a relatively small number of woody plants can support them.

"If you have even just a patch of older trees, you can preserve part of a brood," Athey said.

Athey, Salem and Dominguez all separately attested to their personal admiration for the insects, and for the excitement they've brought Illinois as summer begins.

"It's the noise they make, it's their numbers. I think people have always celebrated this, from the beginning," Athey said.

And as Dominguez noted, they also make excellent starter projects for would-be taxidermists. They only take a few moments to properly position for setting, pinned down with wings spread on the foam board. After setting in place for just a few weeks, they'll be ready for the students to position them in a proper display case.

"Cicadas are super hardy," Dominguez said. "It's super hard for us to rip off a limb or something... after two weeks, you'll be ready to unpin it."

"I think I'll call mine Bob," one pinning workshop student said, turning over her freshly-pinned specimen. "Or do you like William better? I don't know."

"These blue-eyed cicadas are supposed to be one in a million, but we have four of them," one Insect Asylum worker remarked. (Dave Byrnes / Courthouse News)
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Categories / Environment, Regional, Science

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