- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 15, 2004

There are three parts to the song a male cicada looking for a little love sings to woo his mate, explains University of Maryland entomologist Michael Raupp, all the while gently squeezing a wriggling male between his thumb and forefinger.

First there’s the “How ya doin’?” tune, followed by “Do you come here often?” But the last is key to closing the deal, the one every male belts out loud because a cicada’s got to be a bit forward when he’s got only one chance every 17 years to mate.

“It’s the, ‘This bar’s closing down, do you want to come home and see my etchings?’ song,” he said.

Obviously, this is a man who knows cicadas intimately.

Mr. Raupp is the chief “Cicadamaniac,” the man at the helm of a team of about a dozen graduate students who have spent the past few months furiously preparing for the arrival of billions of cicadas.

They’ve written cicada cookbooks, taught scores of classes at schools as far away as Ohio and worked with landscapers to minimize plant damage from the expected hoard.

The team has fielded a steady stream of phone calls at its headquarters in the university’s plant sciences building from people curious about cicadas and those who live in fear of the oncoming cicada explosion.

Gardeners call to fret about their plants, pet owners wonder if their dogs will get sick from scarfing up too many of the creatures, and even a few frazzled event planners worry about cicadas dive-bombing brides and drowning out bands at outdoor weddings.

Mr. Raupp calls these education sessions “decompressions” meant to replace fears with facts. Ultimately, the goal of the cicadamaniacs is to convince people that the cicada onslaught is a harmless, remarkable natural event, even though a few of the slow-flying, red-eyed cicadas might mistakenly bounce off a forehead or two.

“We’ve been able to calm a lot of people down,” said graduate student Jenna Jadin.

The first of the cicada nymphs emerged last week from their holes and crawled up nearby trees to molt, shedding their hard skins and emerging with wings. Those that survive the birds, squirrels and other predators will mate, lay eggs and die over the next several weeks.

This particular batch of cicadas, known as Brood X, emerges only once every 17 years in the mid-Atlantic region. They come out in force — as many as 1.5 million per acre can be found in areas with the heaviest populations.

That kind of cicada explosion can be downright terrifying for those who fear bugs, even though they are harmless. But for entomologists, it’s a chance that comes along only a few time in a career to study cicadas in the wild. Many get a bit giddy.

In his lab, Mr. Raupp perches live cicadas on his face for the benefit of a visitor. Driving to one of his makeshift study sites in a University Park neighborhood, he cuts short a conversation with an excited shout as he points out a cicada buzzing across the windshield.

A perpetually busy man, he’s been in high gear for about a week, spending his nights shepherding a film crew through shoots of emerging nymphs and his days handling calls from reporters as far away as Finland. Still, he knows it’s a rare thing for entomologists to become instant celebrities.

“The press is going to leave us like a bad date when this is over,” he quipped.

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