As rare cicadas begin to emerge, KU researchers, students examine the insects
Hanna Rankin, a Kansas University junior majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, never considered herself particularly fond of bugs. But after the first few days in KU environmental studies professor Robert Hagen’s Biology of Cicadas class, Rankin said her interest in the insects has been piqued.
“I knew absolutely nothing about them coming into the class and in just a couple of days I learned a lot more than I thought I would,” Rankin said.
To celebrate the rare appearance of the periodical cicadas the Kansas University Natural History Museum, the Kansas Biological Survey and the city will educational events:
Summer Sirens: At 7 p.m. June 4, participants can gather in South Park, 1141 Massachusetts St., to enjoy beer, wine and food. The educational portion of the event will focus on the ecology of the insects and the implications of using arthropods for protein. Tickets are $30 and can be bought at the KU Natural History Museum or online through Free State Brewing Company at shop.freestatebrewing.com.
Science on Tap: At 7:30 p.m. June 9, at Free State Brewing Company, 636 Massachusetts St., KU professor Robert Hagen will discuss and answer questions about cicadas and their life cycle.
Festival of the Cicadas: From 1 to 4 p.m. May 30 participants can gather at the Prairie Park Nature Center, 2730 Harper St. There, entomologist Mary McCoy will speak about the insects and help the group search for cicadas in the Kansas prairie.
Hagen’s class isn’t offered every year. In fact, he said the breed of cicadas the class focuses on, called periodical cicadas, only emerge every 17 years.
And now, in late May and early June, tens of millions of the insects will make an appearance around Lawrence, Hagen said. Residents may soon hear their “gentle buzz” of a mating call, amplified by their large numbers.
“It’s just beginning. The first, call them ‘eager,’ adult cicadas are crawling out onto the ground and low vegetation, shedding their nymphal skins and kind of unfolding their wings,” Hagen said. “The males will fly off together and form large aggregations where they sort of sing.”
The periodical cicadas are slightly larger than the annual summer cicadas folks around Kansas are used to seeing and hearing, Hagen said. What sets them apart is their life cycle.
“These guys are special because they’re synchronized,” he said. “They’ve been down there for 17 years. It’s extraordinary, considering these are little tiny guys, about the size of the last joint in your pinky.”
Hagen’s class, along with groups from St. Cloud University in Minnesota and the University of California, Davis, will spend their time at the university’s Armitage Education Center, north of Lawrence, researching the emergence of the periodical cicadas and their effect on the surrounding habitat.
“How do these things do it? How do they know when it’s time to come out?” Hagen asked. “What does this pulse of nutrients in the form of dead cicada bodies do for our trees?”
Jade Hall, a KU senior majoring in human biology, said she initially joined Hagen’s class to fulfill a lab requirement, but now she’s interested in learning more about the cicadas.
“I’m absolutely not a bug person,” she said. “But they bother you a lot less when you learn more about them.”
“Plus, if I didn’t take the class this year I’d have to wait until 2032,” she added.
The cicadas aren’t expected to stick around very long, Hagen said, so it’s important for the class to seize the opportunity to study them. Sooner rather than later, birds, rodents and other small animals will notice an excess of the insects and enjoy an early-summer feast.
“This is a great bonanza of food,” Hagen said. “The cicadas don’t have any nasty odors or sharp spines or ways of defending themselves. It’s going to be a great year to be a bird. All the nestlings will survive.”
Rankin said she’s sure to leave Hagen’s class with a new perspective on the insects and a greater respect for them.
“They spend 17 years underground and when they finally come up they’re above ground for four to six weeks and they die,” she said. “It’s crazy to think when they finally come above ground they’re older than some people I know.”