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The Bugs of History

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Friday, April 05, 2013 - 09:00 AM

Illustration of 'The Ant & The Grasshopper' from a 1590 illustration of Aesop's fable Formica et Cicada (Technically an illustration of "The Ant & The Grasshopper" from a 1590 illustration of Aesop's fable/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

Plagues of locusts may have made it into the Bible, but the flush of periodical cicadas that emerge every 13 or 17 years have also gained plenty of notoriety in history and family lore.

While the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock apparently mistook periodical cicadas for locusts, gentleman farmer Thomas Jefferson knew a cicada when he saw — or heard — one in 1775. Just a year before he penned the Declaration of Independence, he wrote about the cicada emergence at Monticello in his garden book. And it’s the very same brood, number II, that’s expected to emerge this spring over a large swath of land from Georgia to Connecticut.

The long life span and mass numbers of the periodical cicadas help make their emergence memorable for those who live through them, like Dr. Gene Kritsky. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, which has five established periodical cicada broods (and that's the main reason he put down roots in the city).

Kritsky got a call in 1987, when Brood X was emerging, from a woman who was watching with her granddaughter. “She told me in 1936, she was playing with her brother, she was seven,” the professor of biology at the College of Mount St. Joseph recalled. “A cicada landed on his nose and she hit it off of his nose with a bat, breaking his nose in the process. Seventeen years later, she was showing her daughter the periodical cicadas. Thirty-four years later, she’s showing her granddaughter.”

He often hears stories like this when he talks about the insect. And for him, it underscores the fact that “these are the bugs of history.”

“It’s a little, family time capsule of things that happen,” he explained. “I think that’s kind of cool.”

The cicada-watching grandmother didn’t call Kritsky in 2004, but he says he hoped she was able to witness the emergence with a great-grandchild.

Have you lived through a periodical cicada emergence? Tell us about it!


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