May 21, 2013

Cicadas, Not Just for the Outdoors

Hobbies. Almost everyone has one, from playing sports to bird watching. But a big subcategory of hobbies is collecting: buttons, baseball cards, and, yes, even bugs.

William T. Davis, an entomologist and naturalist, collected cicadas. When he died in 1945, he left behind one of the largest cicada collections in the world, about 35,000 from across the globe. A small fraction of which are currently on display at the Staten Island Museum.

Go into any museum – and even some home décor  stores – and bugs, butterflies, and other insects can be found pinned in shadowboxes, ready for display.

Apparently, it’s as easy as collecting, well, buttons. It’s also how a lot of entomologists started when they were younger, says Dr. Louis Sorkin. He’s an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History and it was a hobby of his growing up. But instead of a shadow box, he used a cigar box.

Collecting cicadas is actually a pretty simple process, according to Sorkin.

First you catch the cicada, either picking them up from the ground or when they’re on plants or trees. If they’re flying around, you might want to use a net, Sorkin offered.

Next comes the tough part: Killing the cicada. Now, when I see a bug I don’t like I squash it (using a broom or easily accessible item that keeps me and said bug as far apart as possible). But a smooshed bug is not something you want to display.

Sorkin says there are so-called killing jars that can be used, or the cicada can be dunked in alcohol to kill it. At the museum, he says, they use ethanol, but you could use Isopropyl alcohol. Or turn to a household appliance — your freezer — to help kill the bugs humanely.

“It’s somewhat easier simply just to freeze them,” he said.

Once it the cicada is dead, it needs to dry. “The dry specimen, you would simply use a pin, put a label on it and that would be the whole collection.” The pin goes just to the right of the center line, right in the middle of the body.

And if you want to show off the wings, once the cicada specimen is pinned, you can spread the wings out. “The cicadas are pretty sturdy,” he said.

Scientifically speaking, however, different specimens are collected and used to help reveal species variations – meaning ideally you'll gather up lots of specimens from as many places as possible throughout the range of the species.

That’s one of the reasons Sorkin’s looking forward to this spring's emergence, when he will try and get some more cicada specimens.

“It’s good to have more records of where they emerged from and see if there’s more than one species because they’re actually three 17- year cicadas [in Brood II],” he explained.

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