The Buzz On Cicadas: Cross-Curricular Activities

In his memoir Naturalist, E.O. Wilson describes how he decided to become an ant expert. He was originally drawn to flies, a particular family of long-legged green and blue flies that appeared, he thought, “like animated gemstones,” but the year was 1945 and the chief source of the long pins he needed for specimens was Czechoslovakia, war torn and about to be occupied by the USSR. No pins. So he looked around for another insect he could collect in the small bottles and alcohol available to him and decided on ants, a group of insects that were not as well studied as butterflies and were everywhere.

Wilson was fascinated by creatures and as a boy found many on the sidewalks of Pensacola. Over the years, he has returned to one small patch of sidewalk to identify which ants are present. They are never the same. Often, journeys to the ocean depths, unexplored jungles, beneath the ice in Antarctica, and now Mars capture our attention, but life worthy of study can be found at our feet.

At college one year, I had a work-study job with the grounds crew. I was raking leaves and other debris from the base of a tree when I noticed large black wasps dragging katydids into numerous holes in the ground. Like some other wasps, the female great black wasp, Sphex pensylvanicus, paralyzes prey and attaches her eggs to the still living body inside an underground nest. One source says that a developing larva can eat 2-6 katydids or grasshoppers. The bright green katydids had attracted my attention. My curiosity kept me watching. Parasitic behavior is not uncommon among wasps, but even though I knew about it from watching nature films, I’d never witnessed it until I took the time to look at the ground.

This spring offers students in the North East an opportunity to watch the emergence of the periodical 17-year cicadas. For a good overview of Magicicada see: Wikipedia’s entry: Magicicada. The entry includes photographs, a brood table, audio file of its song, and a chart showing the transformation of the mature nymph to adult. Another periodical cicada has a 13-year cycle. Math teachers and students might wonder why prime numbers? Such cycles could serve an evolutionary purpose, as is discussed in “Cicadas Primed for Defense” The appearance of the Magicicada this year is special because Brood II has been underground feeding on tree sap since 1996. It’s also estimated to be especially large. As adults cicadas live 4-6 weeks, just long enough to mate and lay eggs.

National Geographic reports that there are 3,000 species of cicadas. Some cicadas are annuals and appear in late summer. These are the dog-day cicadas. Every summer, I find their empty brown husks clinging to tree bark and clothes lines and recognize their song as a sign summer will soon end, a song that as I kid I dreaded almost as much as the back-to-school ads on radio and TV. Colorado State University provides a cicada fact sheet, which includes the annual cicada. Note the information about the cicada killer wasp. The fact sheet is specific to Colorado, but the cicada killer is found in the Eastern states. For more information on the wasp, see Watch Out For The Cicada-Killer!

K-12 science students can do science using RadioLab’s Cicada Tracker. The site has a map covering the 17-year cicada’s range from Georgia to Connecticut. Primary students can collect soil temperature data with soil thermometers. Cicadas begin to emerge when soil temperatures reach 64 degrees 8 inches below the surface. Secondary students can build a temperature sensor with parts from RadioShack. Build Your Own Sensor includes a parts list and instructions. Data can be submitted to the Cicada Tracker website.

Most states have web pages with information specific to their state, but one comprehensive website is Cicada Mania. The site provides information, multimedia, and links. The site is large and offers plenty to explore, including many photos of unusual species from around the world and audio files of their distinctive songs.

For cicada anatomy, Scholastic Australia has a blackline master and Invertebrate Anatomy OnLine has a more detailed drawing and supporting information.

K-12 students can write cicada haiku. Cicadas are a seasonal presence, and the seasons are an integral element in traditional Japanese haiku. Basho (17th century) wrote at least two: Cicada— did it / chirp till it / knew nothing else? and Cicadas sing— / know not how soon / they all will die. Paul Fleischman’s Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices includes a cicada poem. Students can probably find other cicada poems.

Students in grades 3-8 might like to try their paper folding skills with two traditional origami cicadas, #1 and #2. Traditional origami patterns produce a stylized cicada. To see a realistic paper rendition of a cicada, see Brian Chan’s Cicada Nymph page.

Students in grades K-5 can collect abandoned nymph shells for closer study. Students in grades 6-12 can collect adult cicadas. How to Preserve Your Cicadas – Pinning describes how to preserve and display specimens. I like the suggestion that freshly dead cicadas can be used rather than collecting live specimens for a killing jar.

The cicada’s song can reach 100 decibels and can be heard a mile away. How can something so small be so loud? I should know better. I asked the same question when my youngest daughter was colicky. ProducingHow the Cicada Sings” includes a finished animation that shows how they do it. This artist’s work might inspire future computer graphic artists. And Insect Minute – Cicadas provides labeled diagrams of their musical instruments.

And finally, if my teenage son is representative, K-12 students might enjoy reading if not following the recipes in Cicada-licious: Cooking and Enjoying Periodical Cicadas. But have a heart. Not before lunch.

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