Hardy Marylanders make taste treat of cicadas Others collect the bugs in Calvert and St. Mary's or simply ignore them

June 05, 1996|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Here's the buzz: For 17-year cicadas in Maryland, the party this year is in Calvert and St. Mary's counties.

Residents say those counties have been ringing with the creatures' mating songs for about two weeks. Most people are tolerating them. A few have eaten them as treats, baked and dipped in cocktail sauce or chocolate.

"They're pretty loud in the wooded areas," said state police Sgt. Ray Smiley, who works at the Prince Frederick barracks in Calvert County.

"It's a constant singing, like a buzzing," he said. One person compared the sound to a "Star Trek" phaser weapon stuck on "stun."

"You just get used to it," Smiley said. "It's something you can't do much about."

In the meantime, he said, "The kids gather 'em up in jars and stuff. The dogs are eating them. The cats are eating them. And you're starting to see them laying on the grass and at the sides of the roads."

The Maryland bugs are part of a much larger population of cicadas, called Brood 2, that has emerged from the ground to mate in a broken swath from North Carolina to Connecticut. None has been reported in the Baltimore area.

They're the offspring of parents who emerged in a similar mating ritual in 1979.

About 50 curious people turned out during the weekend for a cicada "crunch brunch" at the Battle Creek Cypress Swamp nature center. Calvert County naturalist John D. Zyla had cooked up an educational program that included about 100 nymphs baked for visitors tired of the same old weekend chips and dips.

"Just about everybody had one," he said. Some dipped them in cocktail sauce. Those with sweeter tastes tried the insects in chocolate sauce. Or honey.

Still others tossed them into salads or taco shells.

As the visitors ate, their snacks' siblings sang loudly from the trees around the center.

"At the end of the table we had Pepto Bismol and a trash can," Zyla said. "Some people said they couldn't believe they ate a bug, but, so far as I know, nobody got sick."

Zyla is collecting cicada reports in an effort to map their distribution in Maryland. He has received about 140 calls from Calvert and St. Mary's counties, and two from Charles County.

Communities in extreme northern Calvert and southern St. Mary's have not reported any, however. Zyla said he has received no reports from Prince George's or Anne Arundel counties.

The cicadas are singing lustily in Woodbridge, near Fort Belvoir, Va., and in that state's Northern Neck. But Zyla has had no reports from Maryland's Eastern Shore.

He is asking Maryland residents to call him at (410) 535-5327 if they find cicadas in their neighborhoods.

The Brood 2 cicadas are a geographically distinct population of periodical insects that last emerged from the ground to mate in 1979. The offspring of those unions have been dining on the juice of tree roots and biding their time ever since.

During their brief few weeks of singing and flying in the trees, they mate and lay eggs in the tips of tree branches. The eggs hatch in July, and the tiny nymphs drop to the ground and crawl into the dirt for the next 17 years.

The Baltimore area is inhabited by a separate population of the same species. Known as Brood 10, it last emerged in 1987, and isn't due back until 2004.

In Port Republic, Calvert County, Karl Neddenien's three young daughters discovered the bugs two weeks ago around their home.

"They came in and grabbed me and took me out to the front yard, where there were maybe 50 of the shells they'd abandoned, just hanging from some irises," he said.

The "shells" are the dry skins shed by the nymphs as they transform into winged adults.

The children were frightened at first by the empty skins, and by the live, black bugs and their bright red eyes. But they soon realized the bugs are harmless and began collecting them. "They filled two 1-gallon buckets with the shells," Neddenien said.

Zyla did his collecting at night and his baking at home. He gathered the nymphs just as they emerged from the ground and froze them. Wait until they've transformed into adults, and they get too hard and crunchy to eat. The newly emerged nymphs are still soft and white. Baked at 325 degrees, they're nice and crispy.

"The kids liked them," Zyla said. "They said they tasted like burned peanuts. That may be because I overcooked them. It was sort of like a peanut-flavored potato chip."

The nature center has no cooking facilities, he explained. Otherwise, "We could have sauteed them with onions. That would have been different."

Pub Date: 6/05/96

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