And Now, Cicadas' Swan Song
Dying Bugs Leave Progeny to Restart Cycle
By Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 19, 2004; Page A01
Bug lovers will miss them. So will an enterprising pair of children's book authors. And the rats of Montgomery County are scrambling already, frustrated that the cicadas are gone.
But gone they are, or at least mostly gone. The other day, Cincinnati entomologist Gene R. Kritsky went into a field, listening for the click-hiss-whir of cicada courtship. At first, nothing. Then, in the distance, "I finally heard one melancholy male singing," Kritsky said.
Some thought the cicadas that emerged this year were fewer than in 1987, the last time periodical cicadas belonging to Brood X -- as in 10 -- appeared in the District and 15 Eastern states. Some thought they were more numerous. Scientists say the early indications are mixed.
John Zyla, an amateur naturalist in southern St. Mary's County, tracked where the cicadas emerged in the mid-Atlantic states. He collected more than 3,000 e-mail reports from people who heard about his research, including some from those insisting the emergence was less intense than 17 years ago. But he added: "I didn't get the impression that the majority of people thought [it] was less."
The level of media scrutiny devoted to the bugs provoked similarly disparate assessments.
Ken Medearis, a government worker lunching alfresco and bug-free yesterday in Rockville, said the media promised an inundation that never occurred. "It was just a bunch of large insects buzzing around," he said. "They didn't bother me much, but I don't miss them."
The absence of the insects does make walking his dog easier, Medearis allowed. "She no longer treats the sidewalk as a moving buffet."
The attention delighted Kritsky, the doyen of Cincinnati cicada watchers. He did more than 250 interviews. The BBC aired him immediately after Ahmed Chalabi. Kritsky's profile appeared in that passport to celebrity, People magazine.
"It was wild," he said.
"Do you know how cool that is?" asked May R. Berenbaum, professor of entomology at the University of Illinois. "Do you know how many entomologists get into 'People'?"
Cicada-savvy entomologists know they are onto a good thing. "It's nice that every 17 years, the phone rings," Berenbaum said.
But if entomologists are wistful about the passing of the cicadas, a mother-daughter pair of instant-children's-book writers are pleased that their first effort at the craft worked out so well.
In late March, after learning of the approaching emergence, Kita Helmetag Murdock and her mother, Patsy Helmetag, decided to write a book for children about the bugs. During a car trip to visit family, they drafted 25 verses, writing them out on the inside of a cardboard box that once held a "Hello, Kitty!" toy. Helmetag, 55, a painter and graphic designer who lives in Annapolis, made 13 paintings in five days.
Two weeks later, a printer delivered 3,000 copies of "Cicely Cicada," which the women offered to bookstores and toyshops in the District and beyond. At Child's Play, a toy store in Northwest Washington, the book sold hundreds of copies, a rate that assistant manager Jay Roberts dubbed "unbelievable." The book still occupies the "flavor-of-the-month" spot in front of the cash register, but Roberts said sales have started to drop off.
A second printing was done, and the book sold about 4,000 copies altogether, Helmetag said. "It was really fun, we made some money, and I couldn't be happier," she said. The impetus for the book -- something to ease the bug fears of Kita's 2-year-old daughter, Evie -- became a promise fulfilled. Evie "was picking them up," Helmetag said. "She thought of herself as the cicada kid."
Richard Lefebure, an environmental health sanitarian for Montgomery County's Department of Environmental Protection, has concluded that the cicadas explain the rats. Over the course of the past 12 years, he said, the county has never logged more than 126 "rat complaints" during June. As of yesterday, the tally for the month had reached 194.
In Lefebure's view, the rats have been coming out to consume cicadas. "Now we're starting to see the cicadas dropping off, and the rats are being seen in yards, moving from area to area, looking for another source of food. They're hungry."
From the stage at Wolf Trap on May 29, Garrison Keillor ruminated in song about the life of the cicadas, which spend nearly 17 years underground until they emerge into an adulthood that is short, a little brutish, and, well, sexy. As Keillor crooned:
The rapture Baptists are waiting for, with no suffering or tears,
The cicada gets something like that about every 17 years.
No philosophy, no economics, just demand and supply.
Was it good for you? It was good for me. And now it's time to die.
Of course, it is only the adult cicadas that are dying. Their progeny, deposited into nests scratched into the thin branches of trees, will mature for a few more weeks. Then they will leap from the branches and burrow into the earth.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Brood X cicadas, inspiration for book and song, have for the most part fallen silent.
(Ron Edmonds -- AP)
What's Cooking: washingtonpost.com's Kim O'Donnell talks about her latest cicada delicacy on WTOP.
Fresh Cicadas Served Here: D.C. resident Jacques Tiziou has a taste for cicadas. Watch him as he collects and prepares the young, tender, winged insects for brunch.
Emergence: Watch a cicada emerge from its exoskeleton. This video was taken over a one hour period and speeded up.
Cicada Cam: Want to see the cicadas up close? Take a look at our cam and check them out.
Audio: Cicada Buzz The male cicada vibrates the membranes on the side of its body to attact female cicadas.
The Day of the Locust: Performed by Anomie Train
Cicadazz: Performed by Peat and Barley.
Cicada Gourmet: performed by Homespun Ceilidh Band.
Local MP3s: D.C. area artists offer songs inspired by the cicada invasion.
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Cicadas Are Coming In a few weeks, nymphs will crawl out of the ground. Prepare to welcome Brood X.
Test Your Knowledge Think you know what Brood X is or where the cicadas live? Take our quiz and find out.
Anatomy of a Noisemaker
Cicada Emergence by the Numbers
Whistling Sweet Nothings, Cicadas Abuzz (The Washington Post, Jun 1, 2004)
Cicadas Are Harmless? Driver Begs To Differ (The Washington Post, May 25, 2004)
Squeezing a Buck From Cicada Buzz (The Washington Post, May 19, 2004)
Soon, the Deafening Calls To That One in a Gazillion (The Washington Post, May 16, 2004)
Arrival of Vast Bug Brood Lightens Mood in Annapolis (The Washington Post, May 13, 2004)
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