- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

Unwelcome red-eyed, winged visitors are expected to drop in on the Washington area this spring by the millions.

Periodical cicadas, underground for 17 years, will tunnel out of the dirt, fling their winged bodies through the air and sound off day and night. Bug experts say the brood due this spring is the largest.

“It’s quite a sight,” said Gary Hevel, a Smithsonian entomologist. “Settlers interpreted them as being the Old World locust.”

Some cicadas emerge annually in the eastern United States. Others come out every two, four or 13 years. But this variety, known as Brood X, invades every 17 years.



The last time they covered the Washington area was in 1987. Remnants of cicadas covered roadways and sidewalks. Residents pulled them out of their hair. And the bugs drove some outdoor events, like weddings and graduations, inside.

When exactly they emerge this year will depend on the weather.

“Mainly, they’re waiting for a little moisture in mid-May to really cause them to start coming out,” Mr. Hevel said.

Wingless nymphs will dig out of the soil, crawl onto a tree and break out of their hard shells, after which their wings quickly dry and their bodies darken.

“They’re a really attractive insect, as insects go,” Mr. Hevel said. “These are characteristically black, basic color with reddish tinges. The eyes are red, in fact.”

They fly off looking for a mate. The males vibrate their tymbals to attract females.

“So they’ll congregate in a tree and all chorus together,” Mr. Hevel said. He described the sound: “‘Thehr-oooh-ah’ … The other ones will do a ‘chick, chick, chick.’”

Once they mate, the males die and the females lay their eggs in tree branches before perishing. The nymphs hatch, drop to the soil and burrow several inches underground.

The aboveground cycle lasts less than four weeks.

“This May, 17 years. Oh, that’s disgusting,” said Rob Garretson, of Ellicott City, Md., who lived in Arlington in 1987.

“I just remember being in my back yard with a tennis racket swatting them, and you come back with four or five in your tennis racket after each swing,” he said. “That’s how bad it was.”

Not everyone sees them as a disgusting pest.

“They’re eaten and chased by cats and dogs and birds, and even I’ve see copperhead snakes gorge on them, and of course, people do use them in recipes also,” Mr. Hevel said.

Mr. Hevel said the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is planning a cicada exhibit in May, complete with sounds and live specimens.

Mr. Garretson said he has a plan of his own for the cicadas:

“I’ll get my tennis racket out, I guess.”

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