Cicada love: a young boy and his bugs

Family Matters

May 02, 2004

Any day now, hordes of cicadas will emerge from 17 years underground to begin their noisy mating ritual.

Most of us are not "bug people," so we're not looking forward to having thousands of cicadas everywhere. We may be disgusted or even afraid.

The last time the cicadas were here, in 1987, Betty West of Elkridge was intrigued enough by what she calls the "benign plague" to keep a written record. The reason was her 4-year-old grandson, James.

The cicadas "were totally engrossing for him," says West, 69, who now lives in Berlin, on the Eastern Shore. "Starting in the morning he would gather them up and play with them."

West, a former nurse at the University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore, keeps a diary in which she writes about significant events in her family.

In the summer of 1987, James' fascination with cicadas was one such event. On June 11, three weeks after the bugs began to emerge, West wrote:

Cicadas "have prominent red eyes, a green iridescent color and a membrane on each side of their body which they can vibrate. It sounds like a file being drawn across the edge of a piece of sheet metal. The million or so in the range of hearing can be almost deafening.

"The source is all around, overlapping other neighborhoods, until you feel it like the sound of the surf at the beach. Not just 'your' sound but sounds stretching for miles around you. Like a music score, the sound builds to a crescendo, then fades to build again.

"The roads look like they're strewn with gravel. They are a cicada graveyard because [they] launch themselves into space with poor design for controlling their flight and so are hit by cars. Trees appear alive with them flying from branch to branch to cicada to branch.

"Haven't seen any pairs yet but the air is filled with their amorous call. They are only minimally aware of human presence, just carrying out their genetic mission. We are unimportant to them.

"James, my grandson, is fascinated with cicadas. Our son [Mark] says at this rate he won't have to buy toys all summer. James is four years old and feels it is his task to gather [cicadas] in containers where they stay confusedly tangling themselves together. He loves to watch them fly. He lets them crawl on his shirt (or yours if you let him).

"Our seven-year-old granddaughter [Rebecca] tolerates them ... but is not particularly interested.

"Since our younger daughter and her husband [Bonny and Larry Kindt] live on former farmland [in Carroll County], there are few cicadas. Her husband brings them home for their son [Christopher] to see. 'Imported' cicadas."

Cicadas are "an intriguing natural phenomenon. We have learned to manipulate natural forces so well. But it is a reminder that there are still things we cannot control that occur around us. They are also fun."

Not long after West wrote those words, the cicadas disappeared.

In 1995, after 34 years in Howard County, West and her husband, Richard, now 76, moved to the Eastern Shore.

And what became of James? He outgrew his fascination with bugs, West says. He's 21 now and living outside Dallas.

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