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Column: Woman’s cicada sanctuary generates buzz in North Aurora

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Bettina Sailer is creating quite the buzz in North Aurora.

That’s because the 58-year-old inventory specialist for Walgreens has built a noticeable cicada sanctuary in her front yard along Oak Street, where she believes at least three species of these trending insects are indeed making plenty of noise in their rare but short time in the limelight.

By now you’ve probably figured out the cicada tsunami we’ve been hearing about for months – with the coinciding appearance of the 17-year and 13-year broods – is hardly even a sprinkle for us in the Fox Valley. Up until I met Sailer this week, I’d seen exactly one cicada – in my garage. Dead and with no way of letting me know how it got there or where it came from.

The same local drought happened when the 17-year cicadas made their last appearance in Illinois. Back in 2007 Sailer also went around collecting more than 800 of the rare insects as they were emerging in other communities. Like now, she brought them home to North Aurora in the hopes they would complete their fascinating life cycle – hatching eggs that would burrow deep into our local soil and emerge in 2024.

And “it worked,” she swears, though “not on a grand scale.”

According to the village of North Aurora’s online “Cicada Tracker,” a half-dozen or so small pockets of cicadas were reported less than a mile from Sailer’s house. Cicadas typically fly less than a half-mile away from where they emerged from the ground, experts say.

On May 23, she was thrilled to discover a cicada nymph on a backyard tree. And friend Nancy, who lives a couple blocks away, also found more than a dozen on her property.

Sailer tenderly narrated to me how she watched her one and only homegrown cicada transform from nymph, shedding its exoskeleton, into a full-fledged adult.

“I cried,” she confesses, her feelings evident as she recalls that moment. “I felt like I had given birth.”

To mark that occasion, Sailer last week added several tattoos to her left arm that depict those developmental stages. This extra arm ink, in addition to the cicada necklace, earrings and one of more than a dozen T-shirts she likes to wear, make her a notable personality as she’s gone about collecting cicadas.

In the past few weeks alone, Sailer has traveled to a multitude of cicada-rich communities, including Park Ridge, Lombard, Petersburg, Springfield, Riverside, Westchester and four times to Wheaton, gathering 4,063 of these insects in cylinder butterfly catchers. A Maywood teacher also brought her around 135 collected by her students.

Then she transplants them into her 40- by 100-foot netted area in her yard that is now secured with 145 stakes to keep predators, including armies of hungry sparrows, from aggressively seeking ways inside this sanctuary.

In case you are wondering, none of her 4,000-plus cicadas are being released into the community. The netting keeps them in the sanctuary where they will finish up their most unusual life cycle. In two weeks, she will remove most of it so that only the trees will be covered to protect the cicada eggs, Sailer said.

Once the eggs fall to the ground, this project will come to an end, she said.

“Be free! Be free!,” she calls out to each of the 800 cicadas brought back from Riverside on Monday, scooping them from the catcher before gently tossing the insects into a covered crabapple tree inside the sanctuary.

“Be free!” says Bettina Sailer as she releases one of more than 4,000 cicadas into her North Aurora front yard sanctuary earlier this week. (Denise Crosby / The Beacon-News)

They certainly make their presence known at Sailer’s North Aurora address.

The moment I exited my vehicle, I was treated to their pulsating cacophony that she believes is actually three different sounds made by three species. Within seconds of stepping over the low fence and into the netted area, I was up close and personal with a handful of cicadas as they landed on my shirt, arm and in my hair.

No need to worry, Sailer assures me as I gaze for the first time into the big red eyes of these remarkable – and far larger than I thought – insects. “They have no teeth and are really quite docile.”

Not surprisingly, this cicada lover has an encyclopedia of knowledge about each species, much of which she shared with me as she showed off her sanctuary that is drawing both negative and positive responses.

Sailer even flipped over a couple of her six-legged guests to show me he difference between the male, which dies soon after mating, and the female, which makes tiny slits in pencil-sized tree twigs, where it lays its eggs before also dying.

Although Bettina Sailer claims to "hate all bugs," that's not the case for cicadas, which she has collected by the thousands in other suburbs since their emergence; and transferred to her North Aurora home with the goal of making them more populous in the Fox Valley when they show up again in 13 or 17 years (Denise Crosby)
Although Bettina Sailer claims to “hate all bugs,” that’s not the case for cicadas, which she has collected by the thousands in other suburbs since their emergence and transferred to a sanctuary at her North Aurora home with the goal of making them more populous in the Fox Valley when they show up again in 13 or 17 years. (Denise Crosby / The Beacon-News)

Once hatched, young cicadas fall to the ground and burrow deep into the Earth for the next 13 or 17 years, depending on the brood. Which is why she’s convinced her efforts will eventually bring cicadas to the area, although it likely will take hundreds of years to make any significant impact.

Sailer is equally certain she’s the only one attempting this kind of transfer, even more notable because Sailer insists “I hate most bugs.”

Does that fact, then, make this cicada fascination – obsession, some would say – all the more quirky?

Sailer smiles when I offer that word.

“There’s not anybody else crazy like me doing this,” she says, adding that husband Ed has absolutely no interest in this passion project but “wants me to be happy … and this makes me happy.”

So much so that Sailer is eager to spread the word.

Each day on Facebook this mother of two adult children, who plays saxophone with the Batavia Community Band, shares pictures and details about her uncommon adventure, including a running total of transfers and where each cicada originated.

Although there are plenty who have reacted negatively on social media to what she’s doing, Sailer tells me she also gets support from people who appreciate this project, some of whom stop by to check it out for themselves.

“I love the sound of these guys … I think the whole thing is fascinating,” she says. “And I want to be alive 17 years from now to experience it again.”

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