When Bill Reynolds was a kid, he played war with cicada shells. He wasn’t the first, either: so did his parents’ generation, and so do modern kids. The brown exoskeletons, abandoned by cicadas emerging from the ground, naturally lend themselves to young imaginations.
“It’s funny that kids do that, generation after generation. Nobody ever taught them that,” Reynolds, head of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Arthropod Zoo, says from his office during a brief break from Bugfest prep. Kids stick cicada shells on friends’ shirts, chase each other with them, or simply crush them between their fingers. “You can destroy them without hurting anything, because the bugs have already left. You’re not hurting the bug and you’re not hurting the child.”
Fittingly, the cicada is the theme arthropod of this year’s Bugfest, which takes over the museum 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday. With live music, presentations by scientists and other experts – and even food with six- and eight-legged ingredients – Bugfest is admittedly more than a celebration of a single species.
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Still, as Reynolds puts it, cicadas are the perfect bug.
“They don’t bite, they don’t sting – they’re completely harmless,” he says. “Other than being really loud, if you’re in an area where you can hear a cacophony, consider yourself lucky. Most of the country doesn’t get to experience this.”
We caught up with Reynolds to learn more about cicadas and to clear up a few misconceptions.
Q: Why did you choose cicadas for this year?
A: Bugfest is an educational event. Generally what they do is they take recognizable insects from the area. This year’s theme insect are cicadas. Most people familiar with them see the brown shells, which is the molt. We see the adults in the summer, and we hear the males calling the females. Here in North Carolina we have roughly a couple dozen species of cicadas and each species has a unique call.
We have cicadas that we call annual cicadas, and these are the species we see and hear every summer. Those annual cicadas are actually on multiple alternating generations, so their life cycle is significantly longer than a year. With the periodical cicadas, and there are six broods in North Carolina, those are very specific to 13- or 17-year cycles. So you have your 13-year periodicals, of which there is one brood in North Carolina, and then you have your 17-year periodical, of which there are five broods in North Carolina. We may have periodicals every 4 or 5 years or so, so they tend to be spaced out. It gives the misinterpretation that they’re kind of sporadic, but each brood is very specific to a part of the state.
Periodical cicadas are the black ones with red eyes and orange wings, and they typically begin emerging from late April to early June. Each brood has a very specific geographic range or a specific area in our state where they’re heard. The annual cicadas are more widespread, and those are the species we see every year.
Q: Since they spend so much of their life underground, does new construction impact their populations?
A: Absolutely. When they nest underground, they’re feeding on plant fluids. They tap into the roots and they feed on the sap. Some people perceive that as a bad thing, but it really isn’t, because they nest underground and they’re digging, they’re turning the soil. They are significantly important with being active agents in the soil and they are a tremendous part of the food chain. Everything eats cicadas, from fish and other insects to reptiles, birds and mammals.
Q: Is there anything average citizens can do to help?
A: Unfortunately, there are places that sell pesticides that target cicadas. What the media does is kind of a scare tactic. Any time there is going to be a periodic cicada emergence, they use words like “infestation” and “plague.” They use a lot of terminology that’s meant to scare them. A lot of that is part of the huge socio-economic machine to, you know, make money.
I just encourage people to not worry themselves with the expense of poisoning the ground. Whatever they dump into the ground comes back to bite us – it gets into our water supply, it gets into our plants, it gets into our pets, it gets into our children. For the most part, with pesticides, the vast majority of use is unnecessary.
I try to tell people to enjoy the cicadas’ periodical emergence, because it will only happen so many times in your life. If you’re living in a part of the state where you only see them every 17 years, you might be lucky enough to see them maybe four, five times in your life. No matter how loud it is or how numerous the insects, it is a phenomenon of nature and nowhere else in the world does that happen. We should probably embrace it as a uniquely American phenomenon.
Q: How much of the country has cicadas?
A: Although there are roughly 200 species of cicadas nationwide, they do have very specific geographic ranges. In the lower 48 states, there are cicadas in all 48, but not all states have the same numbers or the same species, because each species is going to have a specific or unique range.
Q: What about related species?
A: Cicadas belong to a group of insects that were historically placed in their own order, but now they are considered true bugs. Talking about the cicadas’ cousins, the leafhoppers, the treehoppers, and what are called Fulgora, or lantern flies – these are closely allied groups to cicadas that, not unlike cicadas, are fluid feeders. Many of them are brightly colored, they are colorful. Again, they don’t bite or sting, they’re harmless insects.
What: Bugfest 2015
When: 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday (rain date Oct. 3)
Where: N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, 11 W. Jones St., Raleigh (also along Jones Street, Edenton Street and the Plaza)
More on cicadas
Bill Reynolds, who was interviewed for this piece, gives his “Cicadas: The Perfect Bug!” presentation at 2:30 p.m. in the Daily Planet Theater at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. It is meant for ages 8 and up.