Homewood, Will County naturalists to welcome cicadas with excitement, and Taylor Swift

Homewood, Will County naturalists to welcome cicadas with excitement, and Taylor Swift

“You won’t be able to see the bark. It’ll just be insects.”

Bryon Doerr, Homewood’s landscape supervisor, pointed to a large, old growth tree rooted in undisturbed soil. At the base of its trunk, hundreds of tiny holes stuck up through the mud.

Seventeen and 13 years ago, broods of cicadas found their way up the trunks and branches of old trees in Illinois and harvested eggs before falling to the ground and dying, Doerr explained. The eggs then fell from the trees and the young bugs burrowed into the ground where they lived for the next 17 or 13 years.

This month, those cicadas will reemerge and crawl back up trees to restart the cycle. Some are already poking their heads up to see if it’s warm enough, Doerr said as he pointed at small holes surrounding old growth trees.

For people in newer homes where the soil has been bothered in the past decade or people who live in apartment complexes isolated from trees that were around for the last generation of cicadas, there may be a reduced number of the large, flying bugs. But everyone else’s May and June will be a loud one as the 17-year and 13-year broods overlap this summer for the first time in 221 years.

Communities are taking this opportunity of natural wonder to educate residents and increase civic engagement, both by teaching families about how to handle the cicadas and, predictably, make a little money off of the critters.

Doerr and Angela Rafac, an interpretive naturalist for the Will County Forest Preserve District, have told residents for the past year not to plant young saplings because the cicadas can kill young trees. Doerr even canceled Homewood’s usual order of small trees last year, knowing it would be wasted money as many would die when the broods came.

But for older trees, there is good news and bad news. While little harm will be done to these older trees, they will likely be covered in bugs that many find gross and scary.

“I think there will be light areas and really, really bad areas,” said Doerr, before pointing at the trees surrounded at the base by holes. “Where, like, you can’t look at that tree without the whole thing moving with insects on it.”

The discarded carcases of the bugs may smell, but they provide great nutrition for the ground. So either bag them with lawn clippings or let them decay, Doerr advises.

Rafac did not use negative language to describe the bugs and instead marveled at the beauty of nature.

“It’s kind of magical,” she said. “They are harmless to us. They do not bite.”

When Antonia Steinmiller, Homewood’s communications and engagement specialist, started to read about the “magical” cicadas, she became enthralled and began asking questions — including some that continue to puzzle scientists.

How do the broods know when to come out? What is life like for them underground? What happens if it never gets warm enough for them to come out?

The more she read, the more fascinated she became about the insects and realized this event could bring her community of Homewood closer together. So Steinmiller did what she always does whenever she needs to get creative: she turned on Taylor Swift.

“My best ideas come from when I’m listening to her music,” Steinmiller said. “Whenever I’m designing something, I’ll always play her.”

Steinmiller turned to the design platform Canva, and got to work remaking all of Taylor Swift’s merchandise. The pop-star’s record breaking Era’s Tour logo contains different pastel shades of her various album covers donned with her face and a full body picture of her in the middle.

But residents in Homewood can — up until Sunday — go online and buy a shirt with a similar looking symbol. Except on these shirts, the singer’s face is replaced by the winged insect.

The shirts sold out quickly at pop-up shops and online, resulting in about 400 total sales of the shirts. With proceeds going to a local women’s shelter called Anew, the Homewood community is set to raise thousands of dollars for a cause Steinmiller knows Swift would support.

Not only Swifties — as Taylor’s fans are known — are in line to buy these shirts.

“Half of our residents know what it is and half just really like cicadas,” said Steinmiller.

The Will County Forest Preserve District also designed cicada theme merchandise, this time choosing puns over pop-culture references.

“Be Loud, Be Proud” reads one shirt. “Silence is Overrated” reads another. Chad Merda, the preserve’s lead of digital marketing strategy and engagement officer, said the district sold about 500 of the shirts and hopes it will continue a path of excitement and community cohesion.

As the summer kicks off and an ever present hum blesses the south and southwest suburbs for four to six weeks, residents may complain over the gross bodies or loud ringing. But naturalists urge residents to enjoy the bugs and promise we will eventually come to miss this once in a lifetime event.

Chicago Tribune’s Adriana Perez contributed.