They're almost here. With reports of sightings in Northern Virginia, the nation's capital is bracing for the inevitable return of the moulting, mating, singing cicadas. The last time this brood was here, in 1996, the British were dealing with the outbreak of "mad cow" disease, Ted Kaczynski was arrested as the Unabomber, Bob Dole and Jack Kemp tried unsuccessfully to beat Bill Clinton and Al Gore, Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" won an Oscar for best picture, and Benjamin Netanyahu won his first term as prime minister in Israel.
We may be annoyed by cicadas, or grossed out, but there's something reassuring about knowing that every 17 years they'll return. This year, however, they may not return in the enormous swarms we've been led to imagine. Other neighborhoods will be hit hard, but fewer Brood II cicadas, as they're correctly called, may show up in the District of Columbia, says Gary Hevel of the Department of Entomology at the Smithsonian Institution. "Oddly, Northern Virginia in 1996 experienced large numbers of cicadas, while the District and Maryland had minimal numbers," he said. "Because emerging cicadas do not fly too far from their food sources [most trees], this described pattern during this emergence will probably be quite similar."
Several thousand different species of cicadas thrive throughout the world. They live below the surface for much of their lives, eventually popping upward in 13- to 17-year cycles, as the Brood X cicadas did in 2004. The species arriving this year has not been seen since 1996 and is known as the Magicicada Brood II. Most of their dark lives are spent underground as immature nymphs, which may be why they're reluctant to risk a visit to Washington.
Cicadas come to the surface to breed after shedding their exoskeletons. This cycle lasts less than four weeks, beginning in early to mid-June. Male cicadas die soon after mating. Before the females die, they lay 400 to 600 eggs. They're loud, their beady, red eyes are set wide apart, and they're attractive only to other cicadas. They're no threat to humans, and you can eat them if you're really, really hungry. Recipes for baking, boiling and broiling them abound on the Internet. Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania also expect a visit from the stork, or whoever delivers baby cicadas. The soil has to reach 63 degrees to a depth of eight inches for the cicadas to hear the mating call.
The large cyclical emergence by cicadas is referred to as "predator satiation," and they reproduce in such large numbers to keep birds, squirrels, snakes, lizards and raccoons — their natural predators — from culling the population. Nature's goal is to ensure that enough survivors are left behind to reproduce.
Cicadas smell bad after they die, their shrill sound can be profoundly annoying, they're not friends of plants and they make an unpleasant crunch under a human (well-shod) foot. Females lay their eggs in young plants and trees with little regard for the plant's welfare.
However, there may be a healthy revenge. A new report from the United Nations promotes an insect diet. This might include cicada dumplings, tacos and ice cream, but try the ice cream at your peril. The last time the cicadas visited, an enterprising ice creamery called Sparky's in Columbia, Mo., offered cicada ice cream. But before making a second batch, Sparky checked with county health officials, who advised against it, even though biologists say the bug is edible.
In ancient Greek myth, Tithonus turns into a cicada after Zeus grants him immortality — but not eternal youth. Really bad luck. He was ugly, shrill and crunchy, and he smelled bad forever.
The Washington Times
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