What’s the Buzz about Cicadas?

This post is by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.

Do you hear it? There is a buzz in the air, or at least there will be soon. This spring, billions of Brood X cicadas will show up in many U.S. states across the East, South, and Midwest. Every 17 years they emerge, their large numbers and loud buzzing making them impossible to ignore. Such an event is always covered by the media, and this brood’s 17 year cycle provides an opportunity for creative searching within Chronicling America to explore how these cicadas have been discussed over time. Along the way, students might also gain valuable insights into the persistence of scientific misunderstandings.

A simple search on the term “cicada” yields many articles, such as this one from 102 years (or six Brood X generations) ago.

Article on the 17 Year Locust from the Sun Newspaper 6/22/1919

The 17 Year Locust Marvelous Bug but Not So Black as Painted. The Sun 6/221919

The article contains multiple points of entry for student exploration, including images, headlines, maps, and text sections with subheads such as “Dispelling Evil Traditions” and “Locusts Eaten in the South.” Select questions to support students in exploring a section, focusing on how cicadas were discussed in 1919.

Sample student observations may include:

  • Some people regarded cicadas as dangerous – or evil – despite the fact that they “differ[ed] radically from the pests of Biblical fame.” Whereas locusts can cause significant crop damage by eating plant foliage, cicadas spend practically their whole lives underground, sucking liquid from roots, and do not eat as fully grown adults.
  • Others read hidden meanings in the bars on cicada wings: “These bars are always the shape of the letter W, but few people remember that through a period of thirteen or seventeen years and great significance is attached to it at each recurrence. Always some prophet has arisen to announce that the W on the locust’s wings means ‘war.’”
  • Despite various evils attributed to cicadas, in the south they were often considered a delicacy, by animals and people alike. “They are full of a rich, creamy fat which appeals to hogs, chickens, dogs and birds. This substance is actually so full of fat that it has been successfully used in making soap.”

Next, challenge students to count forward and back from 1919 in multiples of 17 to refine their “cicada” search and locate articles in other years, such as: 1902, 1885, and 1868, noting similarities and differences in their discussion of cicadas. Some students may be struck by the persistence of scientific misunderstandings; each emergence was accompanied by attempts to dispel many of the same myths. In fact, the cicada vs. locust misunderstanding continues to be referenced in 1953, the last year for which one is able to search for this particular Brood within Chronicling America. That’s a pretty remarkable run of cicada misunderstandings!

Students might even wish to make note of what is said about cicadas in contemporary reports, on TV or online. How are those reports similar to or different than what they find in Chronicling America? Let us know what they come up with!

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