A Bug’s Second Life

RALEIGH, N.C. — Sometimes inspiration flies up and smacks you in the face. That’s what happened to the jewelry maker Susan Reynolds.

“One day I was walking my dog and this cicada flew around and hit me in the head, then it fell to my feet,” Ms. Reynolds said.

Once they emerge, cicadas have only a few weeks to live. This particular one seemed to have died in flight. Ms. Reynolds picked up the insect, took it back to her work table and became fascinated by the shape and intricate veining of its wings.

That’s how she created her first pair of earrings from cicada wings almost 20 years ago, long before Brood X emerged in so many parts of the United States this spring. Now, Ms. Reynolds is filling orders for significantly more customers, who want to commemorate the 17-year cicada, she said.

At first, she kept her cicada earrings simple: just the wing, coated in resin. Then she started adding semiprecious stones and Swarovski crystals. This year, Ms. Reynolds, 62, incorporated flowers, leaves and birds cut from vintage postcards into her designs.The results look almost like tiny, delicate, panels of stained glass.

“I want to make jewelry that looks like a fairy flew into an elderly woman’s room and started snatching things off her dressing table,” Ms. Reynolds said.

Getting the raw material takes a bit of work. Brood X has been prevalent in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest, but North Carolina doesn’t get large numbers of them.

The Raleigh area does get other cicadas, usually in early July, but until they appear, Ms. Reynolds has relied on packages of dead cicadas from Brood X hot spots. Most of Ms. Reynolds’s neighbors also know that she’s the cicada lady — she put out the word on the neighborhood listserv — so people drop dead cicadas in a box by her front door, too.

Initially, Ms. Reynolds said, she thought: “Who would want to mail me dead bugs? Would the Postal Service even allow that?”

It turns out her customers supply them. Cheryl Fraser, the owner of Galatea Boutique, a local store that sells the jewelry, said that people have started dropping dead cicadas off at the store. (One customer sent earrings to a daughter in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the cicadas’ invasion of the nation’s capital.)

“They’re really taking off,” said Ms. Fraser, who has sold Ms. Reynolds’s jewelry for more than a decade. “It’s a tip of your hat to the cicada.”

Until she’s ready to work on them, Ms. Reynolds puts the dead insects in bags and freezes them. Even frozen, cicadas are very stinky. When she gets ready to remove a batch of wings, she puts on a mask, lights a scented candle, and uses microsurgical scissors to snip the wings from the bodies.

The wings generally don’t need cleaning, but if something is stuck to them, she dips them in warm, soapy water. Despite their ethereal appearance, the wings are pretty tough.

Learn More About Cicadas

Here comes Brood X. Species of periodical cicadas will emerge in places all over the eastern part of the United States in the coming weeks. Here’s what you should know about our insect visitors making their once-in-every-17-year appearance.

    • Answers to common questions: Where will the cicadas be? When will you see them? And what the heck are they doing?
    • Where they have disappeared: On Long Island in New York and in other locations, Brood X may have vanished forever.
    • Test yourself: Seventeen years is a lot to catch up on for Brood X. Test your memory of what was happening in our world when they last appeared in 2004.
    • Listen to their music: Cicadas are loud and noisy. But if you know how to listen, you’ll hear the music they make, a contributor writes in this guest essay.

    She disposes of the rest of the bug. “The birds and squirrels like to eat them, believe it or not,” Ms. Reynolds said.

    The rest of the process involves selecting the right designs from her collection of vintage postcards, and layers of resin. It takes Ms. Reynolds five to six days to complete a pair of earrings or a necklace.

    It can make for a bit of a entomological scene: Last summer, Ms. Reynolds counted 480 cicadas in her freezer by the end of the season. (Allowing for occasional damaged wings and single wings for pendants, 480 cicadas equals 800 pairs of earrings, give or take.) They are now sold at 10 galleries and museum stores in the region; prices range from $50 to $85 for earrings and $54 to $125 for necklaces.

    At the height of the pandemic, people bought through her Etsy store, Bijou Savvy. “I really had no idea they’d get so popular,” Ms. Reynolds said, laughing.

    The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh has sold the earrings at its museum shop for a number of years, according to Heather Heath, the retail operations manager for the museum.

    Insects are a big deal at the museum: Its annual weeklong Bugfest drew around 35,000 people, prepandemic, to learn about (and eat) them. But Ms. Heath said that Ms. Reynolds’s jewelry is different because it shows that cicadas are “beautiful” and not just noisy, messy sex machines.

    “I really like it when people take something that many people think is gross and icky, and see that it can be beautiful,” Ms. Heath said.

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