Bug invasion brings itch to travel

Cicadas: Some people want to escape the insects

others are coming from afar to see them.

May 11, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

At 76, Magdalene Fennell has lived long enough to see Maryland's 17-year cicadas come and go four times. But the prospect of a fifth encounter with Brood X has her packing.

"I hate it when they're coming," said Fennell, who lives in the city's Guilford neighborhood. "I remember they get in your hair and they buzz around your ears and they fall on you."

Fennell was plotting an escape to her condo in Arizona. "It's my understanding they don't come out there," she said.

Driven by fascination or phobia, many people are making cicada travel plans -- most to avoid the insects, but a few to immerse themselves in one of nature's rarest experiences.

"We've gotten calls from as far as Japan from people who are planning trips to be here in Washington to see the cicadas," said Michelle Urie, a spokeswoman for the National Museum of Natural History. "It's definitely attracting attention around the world."

The impending arrival of Brood X (10) across parts of 16 states from Tennessee to New Jersey is the largest insect emergence in the world. It's unique to eastern North America, and it has occurred only 14 times since the 13 colonies broke from England in 1776.

Gardeners in the Baltimore region have been turning up loads of nymphs in their soil in recent days. Entomologists say the insects have dug escape tunnels. They're poised just below the surface, ready to emerge en masse when the soil temperature rises to 64 degrees. (It was 61.5 degrees Sunday in Prince George's County.)

With air temperatures forecast in the 80s all week, "we're right on the cusp," said Mike Schauff, a U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist in Beltsville. "I expect them to start emerging any time."

A few early risers are already up. Residents in Montgomery County, Washington and Fairfax County, Va., have reported empty cicada exoskeletons on their trees. That's evidence a few nymphs have emerged, shed their skins, transformed into winged adults and flown off to begin their noisy mating rituals.

"A lot more will be emerging in the next five to seven days," said John D. Zyla, a naturalist and longtime cicada researcher. (His Web site is www.cicadas .info.) "It should be pretty loud here in a week to 10 days. This is perfect weather for them to emerge."

Nobuo Minegishi, 69, is flying in from Japan just to hear the cicadas' love songs and to satisfy a lifelong ambition.

Minegishi's daughter-in-law, Mayumi, said via e-mail that Minegishi was just a boy in Japan when he first read a book about the periodical cicadas of eastern North America.

He's not a bug collector or an eco-tourist, she said, but "he's interested in anything." After watching a 1987 TV program about Brood X's last emergence, he knew he had to see them up close. On April 26, his daughter-in-law e-mailed Smithsonian naturalist Gary Hevel for advice.

He told her May 20 to May 27 would be "a perfect time" to witness the cicadas. He also urged that Minegishi visit the new cicada exhibit at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. (http://abbot.si.edu/highlight/cicadas)

Minegishi expects to arrive in Washington on May 18. Plenty of Marylanders are considering their travel plans, too.

"Our naturalists have been fielding some calls from people who are trying to plan vacations around the emergence -- to be elsewhere," said Jeff Muller, events director at the Irvine Nature Center in Stevenson, northwest of Baltimore.

"This is a natural occurrence," he said. "[But] because it happens so infrequently, the anticipation is worse than the actual event." Irvine will play host to a hands-on cicada tour, "It Came from the Mud: The Complex Lives of Cicadas and Locusts," at 5 p.m. May 24.

"We're trying to get people to realize it's not that big of a deal," Muller said.

Maybe. But Irvine's volunteer coordinator, Laura Passard, remains terrified.

"I'm from Southern California," she said. "We have earthquakes; I can handle earthquakes. ... I can't understand how the world is going to work with bugs flying around us all the time. I've decided to wear a beekeeper's suit."

People who can travel are calling the AAA Mid-Atlantic office in Lutherville for advice.

"It was mostly from people who were going to be doing outdoors activities -- camping, hiking or rafting ... wanting to know what time of year they [the cicadas] would be at their worst so they could postpone their activities," said Steve Andrews, AAA travel adviser.

Some people can't wait for Brood X to show up.

University of Maryland entomologist Mike Raupp said people with relatives at College Park have called for advice, trying to synchronize their visits with the cicadas' ancient timetable. "One was from California," he said. "Another faculty member had a child in Florida who wanted to come home to see them."

Other callers were outbound. "We fielded a few who wanted to get out of town," Raupp said. He suggested the Eastern Shore, most of which is a cicada-free zone.

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