17-year cicadas create a buzz in some Va. neighborhoods

There was stuff going on in the bushes next to Frank Lynch’s house that he didn’t really want to know about.

But when a pair of mating cicadas, stuck bumper to bumper, plopped on his porch, Lynch and his wife, Debbie, couldn’t ignore them.

“I think we have a picture,” he said. “I can’t show it to you. It’s X-rated.”

In the wooded enclave of Lake Ridge in Prince William County, a great swarm of cicadas is bringing the noise and the funk. The roar is indescribable, like white noise pumped through dozens of concert speakers, like a football stadium packed with fans going out of their minds. “Kind of sounds like aliens,” said Lynch’s neighbor Kevin Givens, scanning the skies.

Delayed by an early May chill, the population of cicadas known as Brood II was stuck in the cold, hard ground between North Carolina and Connecticut, their 600-mile range, waiting for the soil to warm to 64 degrees.

Now that the air temperature is hitting 90, entomologists said residents in some parts of those states can expect a surge.

The cicada tracker operated by public radio’s “Radiolab” reports sightings all over Virginia — in and around Manassas, Woodbridge, Fredericksburg, Culpepper and Fairfax. Yet Marylanders have reported very few sightings, perhaps because of cooler weather.

Lake Ridge got the bugs early, and their behavior for the past two weeks has been strictly by the book, as entomologists describe it. They poked holes through the warm ground in mid-May, crawled out, shed their husks, crooned love songs and started hooking up.

Husks are piled between the roots of a tree outside Lynch’s house, too many to count. Hundreds of cicadas are also stacked there — wings down, legs up, dead. Death comes quickly after they mate, not counting a few prolonged death throes, like a wounded character in a bad movie.

Since the day cicadas arrived, most residents on Willowood Drive have been sweeping carcasses off their carports, driveways and porches. They’ve put in urgent calls to an agricultural extension expert, asking how to wash away a dull purple resin — bug juice — that crushed cicadas leave behind.

Hot water, liquid soap and tons of elbow grease, they were told.

On a hot Thursday afternoon, Lynch, 56, tiptoed down his driveway, careful not to step on the rigid bodies stretching its length. Up walked his neighbor Bob Lozier, 69, a bag of golf clubs hanging from a shoulder, crisp cicada bodies crunching underfoot.

Cicada sounds of love

“I came out this morning about a quarter to 6,” Lozier said. “On my vehicle there were 40 or 50. My front screen door was covered.”

Lozier was bewildered. The cicadas were also all over Bull Run golf course in Haymarket. They’ve been in the neighborhood for two weeks. He thought they would have shut up and died already.

Not hardly. These Brood II cicadas, like most of about 12 different broods that emerge every 17 years, hang around for about six weeks, emerging in stages.

Cicadas are a phenomenon, a miracle of nature, entomologists say. They provide an all-you-can-eat buffet to various birds, squirrels and other bug-loving animals. Thousands of cicada-watchers are charmed by their sound, and some couldn’t wait for their arrival.

Not that everyone will see cicadas. The brood hopscotches towns, especially where woods became pavement in their 17-year absence.

“It’s amazing that some people have them and some people don’t, the gaps between areas,” Lynch said, envious of bug-free communities.

Along a 15-mile stretch between Lake Ridge and Manassas, where the Prince William Parkway splits dense woods, cicadas seemingly buzzed the entire length, crashing into windshields, like a basketball thudding on hardwood.

Birds snatched them in mid-air. A Lake Ridge resident who wouldn’t give her name said she watched a squirrel pounce on her patio grill. “At first I thought he was eating a nut. Then I saw him tear off one wing, then the other, hold it in his hands, and bite the head.”

“Between the skunks, the birds and the opossums, it always amazes me that there are enough of them that survive for the next plague,” said Thomas Bolles, an environmental educator for the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Manassas office. “Fishermen take them for bait. Bass love them. It’s a buffet.”

In Lake Ridge, an enclave of 41,000, the garden club had asked an entomologist to give a lecture to residents on how to prepare for the onslaught: Protect young trees with mesh netting, he warned weeks before the cicadas emerged.

After mating, as the males are dropping dead, female cicadas insert their eggs into branches, which may die as a result. And the females then die.

Nymphs that hatch from the eggs kind of slither along the branches and drop to the ground, where they dig in and live for 17 years, or 13 years for members of a smaller group of shorter-cycle broods.

As far as Givens is concerned, they can come out anytime. “They don’t really bother me.” His six dogs, all boxers, pay them no mind. “They could care less. They land on you. That kind of scares you. But they don’t bite or sting. They’re harmless,” said Givens, 56.

Sam Capps, his 18-year-old neighbor, cut in. “They bother me,” he said. Leaning on a Ford Explorer, he said, “They get on my wheels.”

What Capps said next would creep out people with bug phobias. “They fall on my head and start making that weird noise or whatever. When I was driving around last night, there were at least 500 of them underneath a light post.”

Cicadas might be annoying, but like many teenagers, Capps has his limits when it comes to cleaning up behind them. “I don’t sweep them,” he said. “They just die and disappear.”

As residents talked, they bobbed and weaved to avoid dive-bombing cicadas. Tigist Bedana wiped one from her 1-year-old’s hair with a quick swipe.

Standing on his walk, Lynch kept looking back at the safety of his front door. “What are you going to do?” he said. His wife, he said, “doesn’t want me to kill anything.” But his dog, a husky mix, “finds them a delicacy.”

Lynch is embarrassed. “I don’t want anybody to see my house with these things around,” he said. “They are messing up my grilling opportunity.”

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.
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