Fall weather draws bugs from far afield to basement

October 11, 2003|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,SUN STAFF

AS ANYBODY with a basement knows, it has been a boom year for bugs, especially crickets. Now that the days are getting cooler and shorter, crickets have been scooting inside houses, singing up a storm.

For instance, the other morning I arrived at the breakfast table in our downtown Baltimore rowhouse and my wife greeted me with the news: "There's a bird trapped in the basement."

I listened to the commotion for a minute and told her "Girl, you've been living in the city too long. That's not a bird, it's a cricket."

Sure enough, when I made my way into the darkened basement I heard the distinctive "chirp, chirp, chirp," coming from a stack of old newspapers. I gave the stack of newspapers a kick, the equivalent of tossing an old shoe at a howling cat, and the cricket took the hint and shut up.

Yesterday, I got a more scientific perspective on the crooning cricket phenomenon by talking on the phone with Dr. Michael Raupp, professor of entomology at the University of Maryland in College Park. He teaches classes about the creatures, including a graduate-level course that requires the students to eat them, and he deals with invading arthropods that have made their way into his Howard County home.

"It has been a fantastic year for insects," Raupp said. The record amount of rainfall in the mid-Atlantic, he said, has produced a lot of vegetation and that in turn has led to a lot of insects.

He reported that just the other night he and his wife, Paula Shrewsbury, who also teaches entomology at College Park, escorted some sonorous crickets from their Columbia home. Being entomologists, they used the catch-and-release approach, Raupp said. They swept the crickets into a dustpan with a broom or picked them up with their fingers and returned them to the great outdoors.

"They were singing their hearts out," Raupp said. But, he said, since it is getting to be the end of the warm weather, "they were singing their swan song."

Raupp quickly went over a few basic facts of cricket life. The ones making the noise, by rubbing wings together, are guy crickets. They make commotion for a couple of reasons, including fighting and sounding an alarm, but the mostly likely reason for the serenade is that it's a mating call. "They are trying to lure females," Raupp said, "like guys everywhere."

As for why the noisy males show up inside houses, Raupp had two explanations. First there was the deep, philosophical one: "Why do any of us end up anywhere?" Then came the simple one: "They made a wrong turn." These are field crickets, he said, and they are happier in fields than basements.

Displaced crickets don't really do any harm inside homes, Raupp said - other than driving some folks crazy with their constant chirping.

On the other hand, Raupp said, some Asian cultures treat serenading crickets as a sign of good luck, one of nature's mystical melodies. But most Americans, he conceded, like to hear that tune only if it is coming from the back yard, not from behind the bed or refrigerator.

He ticked off several ways to cope with the boisterous bugs. One was the broom and dustpan method of relocation. Another was to catch them bare-handed. "You pounce on them just like a cat, give them a hug and send them on their way."

Another technique is to suck them up with a vacuum cleaner. "If you do that, I would recommend changing the vacuum cleaner bag," Raupp said, otherwise the trapped cricket could end up crooning in the machine's innards. He could not recommend stepping on them, both because of his respect for the creatures and because " if you do the old two-step on them they will leave a spot on the rug."

I happened upon a couple other tactics for coping with crickets. To dispose of the cricket in my basement, the one that sounded like a bird, I employed the shake, rattle and recycle method. Every time the cricket started to sing, I gave his residence, the stack of newspapers, a shake, or rattled a nearby bucket. That seemed to scare him into silence. Then yesterday, recycling day in our neighborhood, I carried him and his abode out to the alley to rendezvous with the recycling truck.

But my favorite method of coping with cricket noise was the one passed on to me by David Martin, Baltimore County extension agent. He told me that the other night he was sitting in his Reisterstown home watching television with his wife when she announced that there was a chirping cricket in the room. Martin simply turned up the TV volume.

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