Cool Class: BIOL 418/EVRN 420 – Biology of Cicadas

This summer Lawrence residents experienced a phenomenon they haven’t seen since 1998. Swarms of cicadas. Every summer annual “dog days” cicadas make an appearance in Lawrence and neighboring areas but this summer brought cicadas by the tens of thousands. These cicadas are periodical, living underground for 17 years before popping above ground for a brief period in summer.

“Our next opportunity to see and study (the periodical cicadas) will not come until 2032,” said Bob Hagen, assistant professor of ecology & evolutionary biology and environmental studies. “In some ways, this is more similar to a solar eclipse than biology: a rare event that happens on a predictable schedule. Unlike a solar eclipse, there is much we don’t know about the basic science of periodical cicadas. That means that the emergence of the cicadas provides an opportunity for original research by undergraduates, as well as for education and public outreach.”

This unique opportunity for study and education led Hagen to create the cross-listed course: Biology of Cicadas. Students in this course learned about the biology and anatomy of the creatures and honed research skills in a fast-paced, short course that lasted just a few weeks while the cicadas were above ground and active.

Student Hanna Rankin teaches Mini College participants about periodical cicadas

“I think what makes this course unique is the fact that the subjects, in a way, are actually what teach the students, rather than just sitting in a classroom and listening to a professor give a lecture,” said Hanna Rankin, a student in the course and senior majoring in environmental studies. “Since the course is so hands-on, we are able to just pick a specimen right off the tree and observe them without any limitations. There’s no slide we’re reliant on as a picture. Our evidence is right there.”

Another student in the course, Sarah Anderson, is continuing to work on cicada research with support from an environmental studies scholarship.

“Every day in this course we learned something new and exciting. The course was fast paced, but it was easy to absorb information and be interested in such unique insects,” said Anderson, a sophomore double majoring in environmental studies and English. “I learned a lot about cicadas! I could tell you lots of facts about their lifecycle and mating habits, but I think that the more valuable thing that I learned was how to ask and answer questions. The steps to finding an answer aren’t always clear.  When those steps involve hot, sweaty fieldwork, finding the most efficient way to answer a question becomes important.”

A major component of the course also included community education and outreach. The class participated in three events centered around teaching the Lawrence community about these unique creatures.

“The emergence of periodical cicadas always attracts public attention and provides a great opportunity to educate people about insects,” Hagen said. “They’ve been described as ‘the little creatures that run the planet’ because of their essential role in the ecosystems that sustain life. One of the truths about education is that you learn best when you share your knowledge with others.”Cicada_Jar

Hagen said his role in these events was to help students prepare the materials but the students were in charge of handling all the speaking and demonstration.

“It became clear that people want to know about the environment that they live in,” Anderson said. “It’s pretty inspiring to have people ask you questions that they are genuinely interested in and for those people to then wonder what the implications of those questions are on a larger environmental scale.”

The class spoke during Mini College, a program led by the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences; an evening event focused on adventurous eating in partnership with Free State brewing and Hank’s Charcuterie; and a general public show-and-tell event on the Fitch Reservation of the KU Field Station.

“It is very important to make sure that the general public knows more about this species and becomes more educated on their life cycles and living habits once they emerge,” Rankin said. “If the general public isn’t educated on where cicadas tend to habituate for 13 or 17 years, their habitats are going to be wiped out and the cicada population will exponentially drop the next emergence. And this would all be because the general public was not made aware of the fact that a species tends to feed underground where they cannot be seen for 13 or 17 years.”

In addition to scientific research and community education, students in the course experimented with cooking and eating the cicadas.Cicada_community

“We learned that the US is the only country that does not eat insects as regular meals. We tend to think of anything dealing with eating insects as absolutely disgusting and horrifying. However, everywhere else, it is completely natural,” Rankin said.

She experimented with blanching and marinating cicadas in barbeque sauce.

“They’re like mini fried BBQ wings and I can eat them like popcorn. And they’re great protein too, if you look from an ecological standpoint, insects are going to have more energy to give to us as humans compared to other meat protein sources,” Rankin said. “But overall, I eat the cicadas because they taste good when they’re prepared well. The way I make them, you wouldn’t even know they were insects to be honest.”