Cicada invasion: Beware of the bugs


April 22, 2004, midnight | By Dan Greene | 17 years, 2 months ago

After 17 years, invading insect-swarm surfaces for a fun summer in your backyard


They're coming for me. Millions and millions of them, enough to block out the sun or at least blanket my azaleas. The 17-year cicadas will be here in a month, in all their noisy glory. And may their insect god, whom I'm sure we'll all be worshipping soon, have mercy on us all.

"About a million per acre," entomologist Cindy Allen estimates of the swarm's size, without the fear most people reserve for approaching clouds of creepy-crawlies. These periodical cicadas will arrive mid-May and set up camp in your yard for the better part of a month, so roll out the welcome mat for a few million guests.

I'm quaking in my new bug-repellant boots, and I'll tell you why. Whether you were here for the last invasion or not, you're still probably not ready for…

The Attack of Brood X

In and around our nation's capital, cicadas show up every summer, like old friends; old, inch-long, antennaed, winged friends with blood-red insect eyes that lay their eggs underground and burrow out when it's hot enough.

So we're fairly used to a little bug music in summer and fall. But the biblical swarm headed our way is different. These are the bigger (about an inch and a half long) and louder cousins of the annual variety, plus, there's millions more.

This year's cicada visitors belong to the charmingly named Brood X, a title fit for a drive-in movie like The Slime Creature From Pluto! They are the largest 17-year brood, so you can rest easy knowing we're getting the biggest and best enormous bug swarm around.

With a range extending from New York to Illinois to Georgia, escape from the cicadas might not be as easy as the bug-wary might hope. "I have enough trouble taking on that spider in my bathroom, so I'm looking into a nice little bungalow in Siberia," says cicada-fearing junior Russell Forman.

And these bugs don't show up by the billions to sit down and read quietly, no sir. After a few days, the males all start furiously sounding their tymbal organs, drum-like instruments in their abdomens. The sound is "absolutely primeval" recalls physics teacher Karen Hillmer. The fellas are just trying out their best insect pick-up lines on the lady cicadas. If only it were that easy for us.

Ready for the invasion?

By now you may be understandably worried about the cicadas, their numbers and their noise and wondering what steps you can take. Well, the most effective way to safeguard your plants and, theoretically, yourself is with fine materials like cheesecloth, which cicadas cannot penetrate. What cheesecloth is, I'm not entirely sure, but it sounds delicious.

And while we're on food, Allen notes that a large number of people actually are quite enthusiastic about the coming swarm, happy for an opportunity to test out recipes for cicada pizza, cicada stir-fry, toasted cicada and other crunchy, protein-filled bug meals.

If you're up for a little excitement, you can have fun with the cicadas, too. Some lawn equipment runs with a sound at the same pitch as the cicada mating song, so if you play your cards right, you can see a few thousand insects try to mate with your power-saw or lawnmower.

But the million-dollar question or billion-cicada question, as it were is: How dangerous are the bugs? All reports indicate that the cicadas cannot bite or sting, and the only damage that they will do is to younger plants, through sheer weight of numbers.

But can we be sure that they're harmless? I still have suspicions; you don't lay low for 17 years without planning something. On the off chance that the cicadas are invading, Allen says that she would definitely prefer being enslaved in cicada tree-sap mines to being processed into food for the bug overlords.

It's a tough decision, I know, but it's one you can carefully consider as we approach a month of swatting cicadas out of our hair, trees and personal space. Good luck. As for me, I'll be in my tasty cheesecloth teepee.



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Dan Greene. Dan, alright fine, VJ, is proud to be a senior at Blair and a member of the best paper. Ever. He's really funny, trust him. As managing sports editor and ombudsman he enjoys sports and ombudsing. Dan also enjoys literature, soccer and crude humor. One … More »

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