People Are Spotting Rare, Blue-Eyed Cicadas Around Illinois

As two broods of periodical cicadas emerge across the U.S. this spring, people have discovered a few of the bugs that don’t have their trademark red eyes

A cicada with blue-eyes
A blue-eyed cicada that's on exhibit at the Field Musum in Chicago. Four-year-old Jack Bailey found the bug in his yard, and his family donated it to the museum. Daniel Le, Field Museum

This spring, two broods of cicadas have been emerging across the Midwest and the Southeast, with the bugs spotted in locations stretching from Georgia and Alabama to Iowa and Illinois.

Periodical cicadas typically have black backs, orange or black bellies and distinctive red eyes. But as billions of the insects rise from beneath the ground, people have been discovering a few rare individuals with blue eyes, like pairs of tiny robin’s eggs.

Blue-eyed cicadas are often called “one in a million,” Gene Kritsky, an entomologist at Mount St. Joseph University, tells NBC Chicago. During 2021’s cicada boom, he received more than 500,000 photographs of cicadas, and only two of them had blue eyes. “That’s still pretty rare.”

One of this year’s discoverers of a blue-eyed bug is 4-year-old Jack Bailey of Wheaton, Illinois, who has been scrounging up cicadas in his family’s yard, according to a statement from the Field Museum in Chicago. His older sister Caroline noticed that one of the bugs he collected had blue eyes.

The children’s mother, Greta Bailey, took pictures of the cicada before releasing it back into the yard. After the family later learned how rare the blue-eyed creatures are, Caroline and her twin sister, Addison, were able to rediscover it in the dark with flashlights.

The family donated the bug to the Field Museum, where visitors can stare into the stormy blue eyes themselves. Cicadas only live for a short amount of time once they move above ground to mate, and this particular cicada has since died.

This spring is an especially cicada-heavy season, because two periodical broods of the bugs, which emerge en masse from underground every 13 or 17 years, are appearing at the same time. Brood XIX, which emerges every 13 years, is making its first appearance since 2011, while the 17-year Brood XIII, which hasn’t been seen since 2007, is surfacing as well in the Midwest.

A crouching boy smiles while holding cicadas
Jack Bailey has been collecting cicadas in his family's yard. He "has been in heaven since they started emerging," his mother, Greta Bailey, says in a statement. Greta Bailey

It’s the first time these two specific broods have appeared together since 1803, when Thomas Jefferson was president. They surface in adjacent geographical areas, but don’t have a significant overlap. The next co-emergence of a 17-year brood and 13-year brood will occur in 2037, when Brood XIX returns alongside Brood IX, which will appear in parts of North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

“I have been in Chicago for five periodical cicada emergences of our Brood XIII, and this is the first blue-eyed cicada I have seen,” Jim Louderman, a collections assistant at the Field Museum, says in the museum’s statement.

A visitor also brought a blue-eyed cicada to the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, last week, reports Erin Hooley of the Associated Press (AP). Visitors got to see the cicada last Friday before it was released back into the wild.

Stephanie Adams, plant health care leader at the arboretum, tells the Washington Post’s Ben Brasch that she spotted an additional blue-eyed cicada in a group of the insects on a plant. “I seem to be a cicada magnet,” she says to the publication. “It’s job security.”

Kritsky tells NBC Chicago that of 40,000 reports of cicadas he’s received so far this year, two have had blue eyes. “I’ve never found one myself,” he says to the publication. “I’ve had people bring me blue-eyed cicadas, but I’ve never had the pleasure of discovering one.”

“It is impossible to estimate how rare [blue-eyed cicadas are], since you’d have to collect all the cicadas to know what percentage of the population had the blue eye mutation,” Floyd W. Shockley, an entomologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, tells the AP.

The Field Museum suggests people who spot blue-eyed cicadas should take a picture and upload it to Cicada Safari and iNaturalist to help scientists study them.

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