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The Lifecycle of a Cicada Expert

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As a reporter, you're always hunting for just the right person to explain what you can't explain yourself.

So, to begin my cicada story, I looked through clips from 1990.

That's the last time our cicadas came out.

University of Chicago expert Monte Lloyd was all over the papers and TV that spring.

I thought I'd check with university PR guy John Easton to land an interview with Lloyd.

Easton: We had a number of calls from reporters who were interested in cicadas - he had quite a reputation.

Professor Monte Lloyd died in 2000, between the last emergence and this one.

Easton arranged Monte's interviews in 1990, and he recalls Monte gave quite a performance on local Channel 32.

Easton: They were going to trip him up. They captured a couple of cicadas and said, could he tell them exactly how old they were just by looking at them and they showed him a few and he said, I can tell you exactly how old they are, they're seventeen years old. For some reason that surprised the reporter.

Turns out, our cicada emergence was a national story in 1990.

Here's Lloyd on NBC's evening news.

Monte Lloyd: They're little machines programmed to do the things they do, and I don't think they do very much learning of any kind. They're pretty stupid.

Of course, that's an opinion about cicada's intellect.

The NBC reporter was more interested in how they tasted.

Monte Lloyd: And if you want to eat some, you shouldn't eat them in their shell. People've been doing that, that's silly. Wait till they come out of their shell, they're white and soft, that's when they're edible.

Reporters recycle the same cicada questions every 17 years.

Questions like:

Will they kill trees? Only the youngest trees, so cover 'em up.

Do they bite? No.

And, can I eat them? Again, yes.

Kritsky: As far as redoing or repeating the information about periodical cicadas, I never get tired about doing that, and I know Monte didn't either.

Biology professor Gene Kritsky met Monte Lloyd in 1976.

Kritsky now teaches at Cincinnati's College of Mount Saint Joseph.

Monte Lloyd tackled scientific puzzles, but he relished popular, pot-boiler questions, too.

People who knew Monte well say it's little wonder he talked about cicadas outside the university.

Lloyd: Yeah, he was just explaining his life. He didn't have to script it, it was like what did you do yesterday for dinner.

This is Monte's son Dylan.

He and his brother went out during cicada field trips in the Midwest and beyond.

Dylan says Monte really shined when he met curious locals and media.

There were always myths and fears to dispel.

Dylan recalls a Kentucky farmer who'd never heard of cicadas.

Dylan Lloyd: and I guess he had some kind of instinctual insect fear where these bugs were crawling all over his tractor he just gave up the tractor, went inside, wouldn't talk to anybody until the emergence was over. People have that reaction to bugs sometimes.

Allee: Did you?

Lloyd: No. Because my dad was the kind of person who would pick up any bug, turn it around in his hand, crush the end of it to see if it had some fungal infection, or see how it was built, or maybe even taste it.

Monte Lloyd developed ways to track changes in large insect populations, but his sons helped Monte and his students with grunt work.

Dylan would draw measuring tape in large squares and count cicada after cicada after cicada.

Lloyd: I'm fascinated by it, but I don't quite see doing it as a living. It takes a lot of real concentration on minutia, but they had it. I mean the contagious enthusiasm about the little things that were going on with these little bugs, you know. To be around them was a joy, even if you didn't know population genetics.

But Gene Kritsky says the public shares that curiosity about this bug with a weird life cycle.

He calls them natural time capsules.

In 1987, Kritsky got a call from a Cincinnati woman.

Kritsky: In 1936 she and her brother were playing in the yard, and a cicada landed on his nose, and she decided to get it off his nose with a baseball bat, and broke his nose. Seventeen years later, she's married and has a daughter of her own , and she's taking her daughter out and showing her the cicadas. And of course that was 1953. In 1970 her daughter is married and has a child, so her granddaughter was being shown cicadas. So by 1987 she was looking forward to reliving all of these stories again.

That's human life, measured in cicada time.

But cicada time can work against science.

Monte Lloyd wanted to know what happens when different cicada groups, or broods, mingle.

Some broods reappear every 17 years … others come back every 13 years.

Would they get out of synch?

Kritsky: They went out and collected brood 3 cicadas and brood 23 cicadas and put them in cages together and watched the two species mate and got the females to lay their eggs in the trees and waited, and forgot to go back 13 or 17 years later to check to see what happened.

He may have forgotten to do that, but he did finish a six hundred page book on periodical cicadas just before he died.

It has yet to be published.

Monte Lloyd got his first taste of cicada science in the Chicago area in 1956.

That work continued 36 years.

Monte Lloyd saw three cicada emergences in our area.

This would have been his fourth.

I'm Shawn Allee.

Chicago Public Radio.

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