Native Americans gathered cicadas in baskets soon after they molted and cooked them over a fire. They were considered a delicacy. The colonists wrongly thought cicadas were locusts before realizing they were harmless.

Not unlike many of us today, naturalists and scientists of the 18th century were fascinated by cicadas. Some penned detailed observations that were recorded in journals and papers. Among them were Benjamin Banneker and Pehr Kalm.

Banneker, a free and self-taught African American, remembered for his letter on human rights to Thomas Jefferson, documented four cicada emergences from 1749 to 1800.

Kalm, a Swedish scientist, recorded three cicada emergences from 1715 to 1749.

Even without the benefit of widely available studies on the insects and websites devoted to them, Banneker and Kalm were able to learn a tremendous amount through close observation and independent study. Their writings, which live on today, show off just how much knowledge they were able to glean.

Benjamin Banneker (Nov. 9, 1731 — Oct. 19, 1806)

Banneker, recalled as not only a scientist, but also an astronomer, mathematician, inventor, farmer and naturalist, showed great interest in cicadas throughout his life.

“The first great locust year that I can remember was 1749,” he wrote about his first encounter on his homestead west of Baltimore. “I was then about seventeen years of age when thousands of them came and was creeping up the trees and bushes, I then imagined they came to eat and destroy the fruit of the earth, and would occasion a famine in the land. I therefore began to kill and destroy them, but soon saw that my labor was in vain, therefore gave over my pretension.”

Banneker, who helped survey the original borders of the District of Columbia. documented the subsequent cicada encounter 17 years later.

“Again in the year 1766, which is seventeen years after the first appearance, they made a second, and appeared to me to be full as numerous as the first,” he wrote. “I then, being about thirty-four years of age had more sense than to endeavor to destroy them, knowing they were not so pernicious to the fruit of the earth as I did imagine they would be.”

By the third and fourth emergences of his life, in 1783 and 1800, Banneker’s writings exhibited an astute appreciation of the cicada life cycle:

… their periodical return is seventeen years, but they, like the comets, make but a short stay with us. The female has a sting in her tail as sharp and hard as a thorn, with which she perforates the branches of the trees, and in them holes lays eggs. The branch soon dies and fall, then the egg by some occult cause immerges a great depth into the earth and there continues for the space of seventeen years as aforesaid.
I like to forgot to inform, that if their lives are short they are merry, they begin to sing or make a noise from the first they come out of earth till they die, the hindermost part rots off, and it does not appear to be any pain to them for they still continue on singing till they die.

Banneker passed away in 1806, at the age of 74. Many of his original writings are housed in the Maryland Center for History and Culture, including the Astronomical Journal and letters and printings of his almanacs. The center also includes pamphlets and published books that speak to Banneker’s life.

“It was awe-inspiring to turn the pages on which Banneker wrote and to read his beautiful script,” said Jennifer Michael, the center’s communications and marketing director.

“I live close to the former Banneker homestead, which is now a park, and I walk through the same woods where he walked all the time. It was touching to read his observations made on the same spot more than 200 years ago. It really speaks to how historical objects connect the past to the present.”

Pehr Kalm (Mar. 6, 1716 — Nov. 16, 1779)

A Swedish scientist and explorer, Kalm also researched and documented Brood X cicadas during the 18th century while traveling in Pennsylvania. He published a short study sharing his observations, which was published in the Transactions of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

The study begins with some general observations about cicadas.

“These insects are extraordinary,” he wrote. “They appear in astounding numbers with indescribable suddenness.”

They are so noisy that “[i]f two persons happened to meet they would have to shout in order to hear each other,” he wrote.

His manuscript also draws from historical accounts, including one he discovered in a parish register from the 1715 cicada emergence, the year before he was born:

During the month of May, there came out of the ground a particular fly or grasshopper which the English call locusts. They appeared everywhere even on hard roads. A shell completely covered the mouth, body and feet. It seems strange that they could make a hole through the ground while covered with a shell. After coming out of the ground they emerged from their shells, and flew away settling in the trees. There they made an extraordinary sound from morning 'til night. Since they were so numerous throughout the country, cowbells could scarcely be heard in the woods because of the noise. The insects slit the bark of the branches and trees and deposited the worms. In spite of this the trees did not show any injury the following year. Swine and chickens eat the insects.

His writing then offers an account of the 1732 emergence “by an Englishman named Breintnal” offered to him by Benjamin Franklin:

Early in May, the locusts began to come out of the ground. The 12th of May, they were still coming and there was an indescribable quantity. By the 19th they were strong enough to mate, after which they began to bore into the trees and lay their eggs. On the 22nd they flew about in large swarms. On the 24th locusts were still coming out of the ground, but by June 13th very few remained.

Kalm describes in great detail his personal encounter with the 1749 emergence, the same emergence that Banneker documented in Maryland:

In 1749, on the 22 of May, new style, these locusts or grasshoppers appeared in dreadful quantities in Pennsylvania. They had been lying in holes in the ground throughout the winter and spring like Eurcae, but on this day they crept out of their winter coats and came forth in summer dress. A tree could scarcely be found, in either forest or orchard, whose trunk was not entirely covered with them. Some had emerged from their pupal cases, others were emerging so they were half in and half out. Some had begun to try their wings. It was remarkable that on the previous day, that is the 21st of May, there were none.
Various creatures such as swine, chickens and birds of the forest, particularly the shrike, are greedy for these grasshoppers. Chickens would not fly to their roosts at night when they were emerging, but stood and waited on the sod in order to seize them as they came out of hiding.
I was afraid my ears would be ruined by the noise and the disturbance they made in the trees.

Anders Carlsson, a publishing editor from Sweden who attended Uppsala University, the same university as Kalm, notified us of his observations. In an email, Carlsson wrote that Kalm spent time in the former Swedish colony along the Delaware River during his four years in North America and befriended Franklin in Philadelphia. Kalm and Franklin discussed cicada behavior, ant communication, herring and other topics.

“Pehr Kalm made it back [to Sweden] in 1751,” Carlsson wrote. “The fact that we read his article on cicadas today speaks to the legacy of the Linnaean powerhouse.”

Conclusion

In the years that followed Banneker and Kalm’s writings, Brood X cicadas have continued to emerge every 17 years, like clockwork, spanning the centuries. The cicadas that are emerging this month in the Mid-Atlantic are the descendants of the cicadas Banneker and Kalm documented,

While cicadas and their 17-year cycle remain unchanged, much has changed in our world since Banneker and Kalm made their observations. Primarily, the environment conducive for cicadas is shrinking because of land development for housing and shopping centers. As a result, the overall cicada population is being reduced over time.

Cicadas are indeed one of nature’s most engrossing, bizarre and unique creatures. They leave behind vivid memories for many who witness their emergence.