- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 11, 2004

Their droning love songs have faded, the skies are free of their tumbling flights, and carcasses that littered sidewalks have washed away. People who feared them can go outside again, while those who liked them quietly mourn their passing.

The Brood X cicadas, vintage 2004, are gone.

But up in the trees of several mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states, the next generation is just beginning its 17-year life. Within the next few weeks, the billions of eggs that female cicadas deposited in branches will hatch.

Tiny white nymphs no bigger than a sesame seed with beady red eyes will rain down from branches to the ground, burrow into tree roots and start their long development. They won’t emerge as adults until 2021.

“We’re watching eggs,” said Mike Raupp, a University of Maryland entomologist who has closely monitored the life cycle of this year’s cicadas. “We’re sitting on the nest right now.”

In the past two months, sections of the mid-Atlantic from New Jersey to Virginia, portions of the South such as Tennessee, and parts of Ohio and Indiana were inundated with billions of the 17-year cicadas. Hordes of cicadas tunneled up from their resting spots below trees, shed their skins and took flight. Males belted out mating calls at decibel levels that created an ever-present din in backyards.

By mid-June, they began to die out. As their last act, females ready to lay eggs sought the tips of woody tree branches, like oaks, where each gouged dozens of small slits in the wood and deposited about 600 eggs apiece.

That digging left many trees frosted with clusters of unsightly brown leaves among the green foliage, dead tips that often snap off during a breeze. Although it is not a threat to large healthy trees, egg-laying can hobble saplings whose limbs are mostly small branches.

Gardeners flooded the Behnke Nurseries in Beltsville during May and June in search of netting to keep females off young trees. The store sold about three times more netting than usual, according to manager Alex Dencker.

He also said the nursery had to soothe the nerves of many anxious gardeners who feared their favorite trees would be denuded by cicadas.

“People were worried that everything was going to die,” Mr. Dencker said. “I told them it is like a bad hair cut — you’re going to lose growth, it’s going to look ugly for the first year, but it’s not going to kill the tree.”

For the nymphs that emerge from their tree-tip nests, the world they find is a dangerous place. As they plunge to the ground and dig in, they are prime targets for predators such as bugs and mites. If the ground is too hard, they can’t burrow down to the roots. In the first two years, mortality for nymphs is about 90 percent, Mr. Raupp said.

Most people won’t notice the nymphs’ dash to safety because they are so small, said Gene Kritsky, a biology professor at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati. But if seen in the right light, they look like small sparkles raining out of trees.

For cicada buffs and scientists such as Mr. Kritsky, who is drawing up maps of the range of Brood X cicadas in Ohio and Indiana based on data he collected, the scientific work is still not done.

“For real cicada people, it’s not over yet,” he said.

Amateur cicada tracker John Zyla is getting ready to draft detailed maps of Brood X range in the mid-Atlantic states, using about 3,000 tips sent in to a Web site he set up to collect data. The Ridge resident spent many weekends in May and June on the road with his son, checking out reports to try to determine the boundaries of the cicadas.

One thing he discovered is that Brood X doesn’t overlap with other broods of periodical cicadas that appear in different years in much smaller numbers. For example, Brood II cicadas came out in Calvert and St. Mary’s counties in 1996, but Brood X didn’t show up there this year despite the massive numbers that emerged in the nearby Washington region.

“It was a mystery, and I just got hooked,” he said of his hobby, which he estimates he spent about $2,000 on this year.

Mr. Raupp said he learned several things from this year’s crop of cicadas. They can fly up to 1,000 feet, he said, meaning that they can move fairly far to colonize areas that previously didn’t have cicadas, such as new housing developments built in what were once fields.

He also has had reports of females laying eggs in some strange places — asparagus plants, goldenrod stalks and other herbaceous plants.

“We’ve had some surprises with these guys,” he said.

Mr. Raupp said the departure of this year’s batch of cicadas has caused a bit of “cicada malaise” around his lab, especially because researchers will have to wait another 17 years for Brood X to return.

Linda Pieplow feels a bit the same way. She used to leave her windows of her Columbia, Md., home open to hear their songs and would even move flapping cicadas off the street to save them from cars.

“As I saw less and less of them, I became more conscious of moving them into the grass,” she said.

“They are an amazing representation of nature. I’m sort of missing them.”

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