The Song of Science: How Cicadas Influence the STEM Industry

May 28, 2021

Love them or hate them, the Brood X 17-year cicadas have returned, and they’re causing quite the stir. These little buzzing beasts may seem like nothing more than a creepy nuisance, but the ruby-eyed insects, along with their kin from other broods, actually have a greater impact on the world around us than you may realize. Once the timing is right, they emerge from the ground to become some of the noisiest little STEM innovators that nature has ever made.

Both periodic and annual cicadas, in addition to various other types of insects and biological entities, can influence the design and creation of common parts of a functioning society including construction materials, healthcare devices, and more. Drawing inspiration from organic elements in order to create these solutions is a process called bioinspiration9, and cicadas are a shining example of just how much science can learn from nature.

Some of the most scientifically compelling cicada features are their water-repellant, self-cleaning wings. Researchers and materials experts frequently take inspiration from these unique wings in order to experiment with new types of water-resistant coatings for clear surfaces like computer screens, windows, and solar cells.1  Cicada wings are covered in microscopic, cone-shaped protrusions called nanopillars that are surrounded by pockets of air to help buoy moisture droplets and prevent wings from becoming waterlogged.1 Scientists utilize a process known as nanoimprinting lithography to create artificial replications of these structures which can hopefully someday be used as a basis for all sorts of water-resistant design.

The self-cleaning mechanisms on cicada wings also catch scientists' attention, moving them towards creating superhydrophobic coating materials that can not only repel water, but prevent contamination, bacterial absorption, and surface erosion.The antibacterial properties of the wings open doors to a wealth of valuable research into materials design, especially for the medical industry. If the structural design of cicada wings can be perfectly scaled and replicated, it may be able to solve bacteria-related problems such as harmful microbial buildup in hospital patients’ oxygen tubes.5 Additionally, self-cleaning, antimicrobial textures modeled after cicada wings have the potential to be used for designing self-sanitizing medical instruments, and even in the creation of transparent, sterile devices like artificial corneas.6

Unfortunately, the fascinating potential of cicada wings isn’t enough to win the average person over. Many people still associate them with destruction and gloom, partially due to their damaging behavior while laying eggs in young trees. However, destruction breeds innovation when it comes to these creatures, and their persistent branch-burrowing has challenged technologists to develop stronger, smarter, more nature-resistant artificial materials to prevent man-made creations (such as cables and wires) from becoming egg incubators. In Japan, cicada swarms led engineers to invent cicada-proof fiber optic cable reinforced with a sturdy protective sheath to stop female cicadas from puncturing the wire to lay their eggs. This enhancement became a crucial aid to critical infrastructure as it prevented network cables from being easily destroyed by insects, a problem that previously caused widespread internet outages.

Now, what about the most iconic characteristic of cicadas: their unmistakable, ear-piercing scream that can literally be heard from miles away? Can this sound be studied and somehow lend itself to any scientific breakthroughs? The U.S. Navy says possibly. Scientists are intrigued with cicadas’ ability to emit such loud, far-reaching sounds from such tiny bodies. To be that loud while using minimal power could revolutionize ship-to-ship communication, underwater radar sensing, and emergency communication.7 Naval officers hope to one day reproduce the sound to use as sonar for unmanned underwater vessels in order to not only locate, but intimidate enemy attackers by seeming larger and more damaging than they truly are.8 So far, due to the unique anatomy of cicada bodies, the sound has not been replicated. However, Naval scientists continue to study the insects for clues on how to improve maritime technology.

Despite being seen as nothing more than pests by a lot of us, cicadas actually contribute extensively to scientific research, their curious features steadily paving the way to a better future for humans. So the next time you hear the familiar scream of Brood X or any other variety of cicada, keep in mind that those shrieking little critters could be singing the song of innovation.