Insects Party: How Cicadas Get Their Freak On

While many oversexed New Yorkers were clubbing in Meatpacking or chilling at a Brooklyn beer garden last Friday night, the

How YOU doing?
How YOU doing?

While many oversexed New Yorkers were clubbing in Meatpacking or chilling at a Brooklyn beer garden last Friday night, the Transom was at the Staten Island Museum watching a man stimulate the genitals of a 17-year cicada.

It all started innocently enough. At 7:40 p.m., we boarded a ferry bound for that distant fifth borough, where we’d be attending “The Joy of Six Legged Sex: An Evening of Insect Courtship and Cocktails,” part of this year’s World Science Festival. Hosted by the Staten Island Museum, the evening promised insect-themed beverages and a thorough education on the 17-year cicadas’ mysterious breeding habits.

Stepping into the 132-year-old museum on the island’s north shore felt like entering the lair of a mad Victorian scientist: a glass showcase of pear-sized beetles covered an entire wall; shelves of glass jars housed the preserved specimens of rodents, fish and reptiles. Needless to say, we had the chills—and then we saw the cicadas.

If you’ve missed all the hype that’s swept the northeast, May marked the rare arrival of the magicicada—a special “brood” of cicadas that emerges from the earth once every 17 years. With each “emergence,” the magicicadas breed like crazy for four to six weeks, and then disappear back into the earth. Though the concrete jungle that spans most of New York was spared the invasion of these supersized critters, the comparatively greener Staten Island had no such luck. “There are thousands in my yard,” said Staten Island Museum research associate Ray Matarazzo, “I can’t walk up the steps.”

Mr. Matarazzo was stationed in a corner with a large jar of cicadas, offering brave visitors the chance to hold the creature. After a quick swig of insect-themed liquid courage (champagne with Midori), we had our turn with one of Mr. Matarazzo’s cicadas. The thing was like a cockroach with giant orange eyes and even bigger wings. (On the bright side, we’re now substantially less afraid of cockroaches.)

Shortly thereafter, we moved outside to the front yard of the museum, where anthropologist Helen Fisher and biologist/author/professor Marlene Zuk were leading a discussion on insect sex. When it comes to mating habits, said Ms. Zuk, “humans are exactly like bugs.” Ms. Fisher noted that both species have “the willingness to do anything to…find life’s greatest prize: a mating partner.” There was lots of talk about orgasms, sperm and even sexting.

We made our way back inside the museum for the, ahem, climax of the evening: a meeting with John Cooley, the scientist who unlocked the coded patterns of the cicadas’ mating calls. Entering the museum’s second floor felt like intruding on a covert lovemaking session; there was Mr. Cooley, standing in a corner, gently hissing and clicking to a male cicada nestled in the palm of his hand.  “What’s happening now is he’s copulating with my thumb,” the scientist explained.

Despite Mr. Cooley’s extensive cicada research, he said it’s still a mystery why the magicicadas operate on a 17-year cycle, or how they know when each 17-year period is up. Whatever the answers, scientists do know that at the end of June, the magicicadas will return to their underground cocoons, not to return again for nearly two decades.

Additional reporting by Hugh Bassett.

Insects Party: How Cicadas Get Their Freak On