Peabody buzzes over cicadas

The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History features a cicada exhibit every 17 years.
The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History features a cicada exhibit every 17 years. Photo by Tasnim Elboute.

On May 1, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History opened its doors to a temporary exhibit — “Return of the 17-Year Cicadas.”

The Peabody’s cicada exhibit, which the museum features every 17 years, re-opened this summer in response to the re-emergence of the Magicicada species of cicadas along the east coast. From Connecticut to North Carolina, thousands of cicadas emerged from their burrowed holes throughout May and June, laying their eggs and dying in the three months before the exhibition will close its doors Sept. 29.

There are over 2,500 species of cicadas worldwide, but the exhibition highlights the differences between two cicada species found in the northeast. The exhibit highlights the Magicicada, which spends 17 years in the nymph stage underground near tree roots, its primary food source, before digging to the suface to mate and reproduce over a 10-week period. On the other hand, the Tibicen cicadas, native to Connecticut, re-emerge every year and are more commonly recognized by their familiar buzz of late summer and early autumn — giving them the name “Dog-day” cicadas.

“This exhibition has been occurring every 17 years along with the emergence of the cicadas — some cicada specimens were even recorded at Yale back in 1843,” Peabody entomologist Lawrence Gall said.

The cicada display includes the first documented reference of cicadas in 1633 by William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Rock. While many people take the approach of merely ignoring the cicadas, others such as James Rennie venerated them through poetry in London in 1847, and even more people eat them in cuisines worldwide.

Part of the museum’s goal is to correct the public’s misconceptions about cicadas as a parasitic creature, Gall said, adding that the exhibit has received “strong reactions” from visitors. To clear up these myths, the museum showed live specimens of cicadas to visitors earlier this summer and led tours to cicada colonies in Hammond, Conn.

“I always thought the 17-year cicadas were an invasive species,” museum visitor Sammy Bensinger ’17 said. “But I found out that they rarely ever cause fatalities to trees and are in no way harmful to human beings.”

Her interest in cicadas, like that of many others, was sparked by the wide-ranging media coverage this summer. Indeed, Gall and other Peabody representatives worked closely with the media to educate the public about the cicada life cycle.

“I was expecting to see many more cicadas this summer because of how much the media hyped up the event,” museum visitor Jillian Horowitz ’17 said. “I guess, living in New York City, the urbanization destroyed a lot of the populations.”

Horowitz added that she was “very enticed” by the idea of the exhibit but wished it were even larger and more informational.

Despite some media coverage suggesting that cicada numbers were lower this year, there is no strong data to back up these claims, Gall said. He emphasized the need to protect these colonies, which are often disrupted through deforestation and urbanization.

As the summer and the exhibit draw to a close, Gall said he is already looking forward to the next time the exhibit will open its doors again, in 2030.

Cicadas are edible and can be prepared by removing wings and legs and boiling them for at least four minutes, according to the exhibit.

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