August in the Midwestern United States is characterized by hot dry afternoons and the sound of cicadas singing through the trees. (And not just in the U.S…there are 1,300 Cicada species that can be found around the world!) Going on a cicada shell hunt is a great way for young children to learn about the life cycle of these cool insects and the process of molting. In this activity, we used the shells themselves as a canvas for our creativity! You can make a day of cicada exploration by collecting shells, making a cicada craft, and ending with fun cicada coloring pages.
LEARN SCIENCE VOCABULARY:
Cicada – a large insect (1-2 inches long) known by the very loud singing of mating males. In fact, the noise they produce could cause hearing damage to a human if you held a singing cicada right up to your ear!
Nymph – an ‘adolescent’ insect, or the stage of an insect’s life cycle after it emerges from the egg but before it becomes a fully-formed adult. Cicada nymphs have digging structures on their front legs, that you can observe closely with a magnifying glass on a discarded cicada shell.
Exoskeleton – insects and crustaceans (like lobsters) have a hard covering to protect their bodies. This contrasts with mammals (and birds and fish and amphibians and reptiles) who have an internal skeleton to support our bodies! The exoskeleton, or shell, is what is left hanging on the tree bark after the cicada adult emerges.
Molting – the process of shedding skin or exoskeleton to allow an animal to grow. Some animals, like cicadas or butterflies, undergo a significant transformation during molting. Other animals, like snakes and lizards, simply shed the outer layer of skin as they get larger.
HOW TO HUNT FOR CICADAS:
Follow the sound! We filled a basket with cicada nymph shells from a local park that was echoing with the sound of singing cicadas. The kids began the hunt by finding the discarded cicada EXOSKELETONS on the ground around the largest trees. We traced them back to large trees where we then found dozens more shells still stuck to the trunk and branches. With a little investigation, we were able to find a few cicadas that were in the process of emerging as well!
With a little luck, you may also come across a cicada killer wasp. These large predators (they can be about 1-2 inches long!) are black and yellow like bees, with a small stinger on the end of their abdomen. They will actually grab onto an adult cicada and attack it! Despite their imposing size and stingy appearance, they are rarely dangerous to humans…usually they will not sting a person unless you are attempting to squish it or swat it. We found a dead one at the bottom of a tree, and man, were we excited to add it to our collection (I say ‘we’ because I was definitely as excited as they were to find this whole specimen)!
THE SCIENCE BEHIND IT:
Cicadas, like all insects, go through a transformation during their life cycle. Adult cicadas lay eggs into the bark of trees. When the eggs hatch, the NYMPHS burrow down into the ground at the base of the tree, where they can live for years eating root sap and MOLTING as they grow. When it is time for their final MOLT, they leave the soil and climb up the tree to attach themselves to the bark (this is the point in their life cycle when we start to notice them). The adult cicada emerges from its EXOSKELETON and leaves the shell behind when it flies away! It is the mating sound of the adult cicada that we hear in the trees, trying to attract a female so that the cycle may begin again.
MAKE A CICADA SHELL CRAFT:
- Paint (I used washable finger paint because my kids also paint themselves)
- Small Brushes
- Smocks and newspaper, because it got messy!
- Glitter (optional…or mandatory, if your kids love sparkle.)
Use the small brushes to paint the cicada shells. This was excellent fine motor skill practice as they concentrated on painting the tiny shell structures! We arranged the colorful creatures on cardboard to create a unique cicada shell display. You could also glue them down if you wanted a more stable or ‘permanent’ end product.
CICADA COLORING PAGES:
We like to color before bed, and so I found some cute coloring pages to round out our cicada learning experience.