A Bunch of Ugly Little Trespassers

Camel crickets, drawn to a Prince George's basement in a hunt for moisture. The bugs are fearsome leapers. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 16, 2007

John Keats wrote a sonnet to the cricket (and the grasshopper), waxing on their never-ceasing "poetry of earth." Indeed, the chirp of the common field cricket drifting through an open window has lulled many people into what Keats described as "drowsiness half lost."

But a long stretch of little rainfall in the Washington area has contributed to an infestation of another type of cricket, a wingless, nonmusical creature that invades basements in search of moisture and food.

The camel cricket can multiply quickly, tearing into boxes and scaring the daylights out of residents who spot the brown, humpbacked bug with long antennae and a mighty jump.

"I grew up in this region, and I don't remember this," said Nathan Cederoth, 33, who owns a home in Mount Rainier in Prince George's County. "This is not your father's cute, black, chirping Disney creature."

When Cederoth pulls into his driveway after dark, his headlights catch a cement masonry wall half-covered with the crickets. He has them in his basement, too.

"They are ugly bugs, but it's mostly that their movements are so erratic," he said. "A regular ugly bug is not going to jump three feet in a completely unpredictable direction. That's the thing that's really sketchy about them."

Mount Rainier residents have been buzzing about the bugs for weeks through community e-mails. But experts said the infestation is widespread.

"You can find them anyplace," said Tyrone Hunt of Dixon's Pest Control in Washington. "I've seen a lot of them in the District. They're a mix between a spider and a cricket. They like to go somewhere high."

The cricket, with arching hind legs, is typically a half-inch to an inch long. It feeds on just about anything but is said to have a particular appetite for clothing with food stains. Homeowners who don't see the bugs can find evidence of their presence on walls and joints, where they leave black smears of fecal matter. Although they can wander just about anywhere in a house, the bugs prefer dark, moist places such as garages and basements.

"They look like a mutant version of aliens," said Clark Hamilton, president of the Windsor Oaks Homeowners Association in Alexandria. Hamilton had crickets in his home when he lived in Front Royal but has not had a problem at Windsor Oaks.

"They are the ugliest-looking things you can imagine," he said. Hamilton got rid of the crickets by calling a pesticide company. "If you want to be green, you have to live with them," he said.

Jimmy Tarlau, a Mount Rainier City Council member, said about 50 of the bugs hide behind boxes in his basement.

"They sometimes come upstairs, and it's kind of creepy, and you have to smash them, but they seem relatively harmless," he said.

"What, are you calling my bugs ugly?" said Eric R. Day, manager of the Insect Identification Laboratory at Virginia Tech.

"They come indoors looking for moisture," Day said, noting that crawl spaces, basements and leaking laundry basins are their favorite habitats. "You're going to see more of these things in a drought."

Day said he often finds the crickets around his fishing boat in Tennessee. "They make okay fish bait," he said. "It's the balance of nature. There's a place for scavengers."

Michael Raupp, an entomology professor at the University of Maryland, said the crickets (genus Ceuthophilus) are gregarious and love hanging out in hordes.

"I know people who think they're ugly," Raupp said. "I don't tell them that they're ugly."


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