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Archive for Sunday, May 16, 2004

Entomologists revel in ‘cicada mania’

May 16, 2004

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— There are three parts to the song a male cicada sings when he's looking for a little love, explains entomologist Michael Raupp, gently squeezing a wriggling insect 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," Raupp said.

Now's the time to make their move: Billions of the red-eyed insects are crawling their way above ground for their rare mating opportunity.

Scientists say this year's batch, known as Brood X, is the largest of the cicada groups that appear at various intervals.

For Raupp and other "Cicadamaniacs" at the University of Maryland, it's also a rare opportunity to get the word out about what they say is a harmless, remarkable natural event.

Raupp heads a team of about a dozen graduate students who have been furiously writing cicada cookbooks, teaching classes at schools as far away as Ohio and working with landscapers to minimize plant damage from the expected hoard.

The team has fielded a steady stream of phone calls: Gardeners fret about their plants, pet owners wonder if their dogs will get sick from scarfing the creatures, and even a few frazzled event planners worry about cicadas dive-bombing brides at outdoor weddings.

Ultimately, the goal of the cicadamaniacs is to calm those fears, even if a few of the slow flying cicadas might mistakenly bounce off a forehead or two.

The University of Maryland's department of entomology's "Cicada-licious" cookbook, which includes recipes for Cicada Stir-Fry and Cicada Dumplings, contains a disclaimer urging people to consult a doctor before eating cicadas in case of allergic reaction.

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.

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