Md. cicada invasion gets off to quiet start

May 12, 2004|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

The season of the cicada has arrived.

From Roland Park to College Park, the first wave of 17-year cicadas known as Brood X are crawling from subterranean hide-outs under cover of night and quietly - for now - taking positions in trees around the Baltimore area.

"It really is going on in people's yards, they just don't see it," said University of Maryland entomologist Mike Raupp, who has been perhaps the most tenacious tracker of Brood X's progress.

Raupp says he spotted "thousands" of cicadas in trees near the university campus the previous two evenings, as he and a National Geographic film crew documented what is being billed by scientists as the largest insect emergence in the world.

State officials will welcome the cicadas back today with a press event where they plan to offer such tips as where to see the insects and how to turn them into fly-fishing lures - not to mention hors d'oeuvres.

Billions of the sex-starved, flight-challenged insects remain underground, expected to surface in the coming days. But the first arrivals are already attracting attention.

In Roland Park, Amanda Toombs watched yesterday as her 2-year-old son Tommy plucked an empty, tea-colored cicada shell from the grass outside St. David's Nursery School.

"Do you like cicadas?" Toombs asked.

Tommy nodded shyly, then casually plucked off its legs.

A cicada nymph flees its burrow at sunset, climbs the nearest vertical object - typically a tree - and sheds its skin. As its exoskeleton hardens, its creamy white body darkens. Four to six days later, the nymph has become an adult and fills the air with its high-decibel dirges.

From the bug's perspective, being first can be a dicey strategy. Males who emerge early have the best shot at mating.

"If you're out early," notes Raupp, "you get the first date."

But there's a downside: Early risers can become easy pickings for robins, squirrels and other predators.

"These first ones are kind of cannon fodder: What you're going to find are shed skin and lots of wings," says Gaye Williams an entomologist at the state Department of Agriculture.

That's what drivers such as Harriett Tinker are also starting to find. The Cockeysville resident was on her way to work when "a big buzzy thing hit my windshield."

"It splatted and the body disappeared, but I thought, `Aha, cicadas,'" she said.

Lew Shell, a horticultural consultant with the University of Maryland's Home and Garden Information Center, said that cicada sightings are just starting to trickle in from across the state. "I heard one singing in my own neighborhood after dark last night," said Shell, who lives in the Glen Burnie area.

Why some streets now have cicadas while others don't is an open question. Scientists know that cicadas typically leave their holes when the ground temperature reaches 64 degrees Fahrenheit. One theory: Lawns with a southern exposure warm faster and so see cicadas earlier.

"The exact cues are a little more of mystery," Raupp said.

One woman contacted the Home and Garden Information Center recently with a different proposal on how to speed up the cicadas' progress.

"She volunteered to rip up her driveway so they'd have easier access to the surface," Shell said.

Some businesses think Brood X can't get here fast enough.

Annapolis Car Wash has stockpiled chemical insect remover, ordering 30 gallons more Don't Bug Me than usual on the assumption that the shrimp-size insects will leave plenty of big splats on speeding cars.

If cicada guts are left to bake in the hot sun, says manager Jaime Neale, "it's going to eat through your paint pretty quick."

Sylvan Beach Cafe in Mount Vernon, meanwhile, will debut a new ice cream flavor today called Cicada. "You bite into it and get that crunch feel in your mouth," said Sylvan Beach CEO Chris Council.

The crunch, however, will be entirely artificial, he quickly notes. "We're going with a mint-based ice cream with bits of Kit Kat in it." A scoop will run about $2.25.

But the impending arrival of Brood X continues to create scheduling worries for many.

Concerned that people would be "picking cicadas from their food," the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company decided to delay its outdoor performances of Much Ado About Nothing, scheduled June 11 to July 11 at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City.

Teachers at Franklin Middle School in Reisterstown are struggling with how to cool classrooms that lack both air conditioning and window screens.

Jean-Paul Bibaud, the science department chairman, said window fans are the obvious choice. Or so it seemed.

"What's going to happen when we do that and cicadas start swarming in and get chopped up in the fans," he said. "How fun will it be to teach while that's going on?"

Despite the imminent invasion, Towson University is proceeding with plans for the campus' first outdoor graduation ceremony in at least 15 years.

"We haven't had an outside commencement in so long and, lo and behold, the year we pick is the year of the cicada," said Susanna Craine, a university spokeswoman.

Sitting on the front lawn of a Roland Park home yesterday afternoon eating his lunch, tree cutter Bill Frederick scoffed at the cicada mania. Frederick, 54, who has seen Brood X come and go three times during his life, said he thinks there's been "way too much hype."

"I hope they live up to the expectations," he says between bites of his sandwich.

On a nearby tree, the remnants of several dozen cicadas - and a few of the insects themselves - clung silently to the bark.

Sun staff writers Lane Harvey Brown, Mary Gail Hare, Jennifer McMenamin and Jackie Powder contributed to this article.

See a cicada molt

Go to and see time-lapse photography of a cicada as it molts. Also, read a Q & A about cicadas by The Sun's Michael Stroh and Frank D. Roylance.

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