Marylanders, rest easy. You have nothing to fear from cicadas -- or so say your government officials.
To prove their point, yesterday several of the state's public servants ate a cicada. Battered, seasoned and fried in oil, the critter fritters went down easy. "It's disgusting," said a laughing E. Keith Menchey, assistant secretary for policy in the Department of Agriculture. Then he added, with obvious relief: "All I can taste is the batter."
He conceded that the state doesn't have an official policy on the periodical cicadas emerging this month in Maryland and more than a dozen other states plus the District. Some of Maryland will be spared; except for a part of Talbot County, most of the Eastern Shore and the southern part of the state will see no cicadas this summer. In Virginia, the emergence will occur in the half-dozen northernmost counties, leaving most of the state untouched.
But Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) issued a proclamation yesterday celebrating the insects, noting that they "proudly display the official colors of the Free State, with their beautiful yellow/orange wings, black bodies, and stunning red eyes."
Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley, standing before television cameras representing news organizations from as far away as Finland and Japan, had some advice for people who might be worried about the impending invasion. "They are harmless, they don't bite or sting, they won't eat your plants or do anything like that," he said.
"It's important to let our pet owners know that these are a harmless entity," added Deputy Secretary John R. Brooks, a veterinarian. But dogs and cats can eat too much of a good thing, which can cause digestive trouble.
The officials advised covering small trees with netting available at nurseries and farm and feed stores. The idea is to prevent female cicadas from laying eggs in a tree's thin branches, which can damage or kill young trees.
Bird netting, with holes a half-inch wide, won't do; use the kind with 3/8-inch holes. "You don't need to do big trees," said department entomologist Gaye Williams, adding that residents should consider protecting young trees with just a few branches and delicate varieties such as Japanese maple.
The state also brought in Joel Weiss, owner of Annapolis Car Wash, to demonstrate how to remove cicada residue from the front of a car. He recommended relying on an expert and touted a commercial product designed for bug-bit removal. "It works at dissolving the proteins that these bugs leave behind," he said, adding that they can damage a car's finish when baked by the sun.
Soap and water may not suffice, he said. "I can only recommend coming to a car wash."
Agriculture Department officials distributed news releases reminding people to avoid using pesticides against cicadas, since the chemicals may not be effective and may poison cicada-eating pets. They urged frequent inspections of air-conditioner filters and suggested that pool owners delay filling their pools if their yards are heavily populated with cicadas.
C. Ronald Franks, secretary of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, was on hand to demonstrate how to tie a cicada lure. During a cicada infestation, fish may not be tempted by much else, so he urged fly fishermen and women to "match the hatch."
Once the serious business was concluded, Agriculture Department official William F. Gimpel Jr. turned on his electric skillet and began turning out his "Maryland-style" cicadas. Riley and Franks cheerfully ate their fritters, and Brooks pronounced his a "gastronomic delight." John F. Mautz IV, a special assistant in Ehrlich's office who had shown up to read the proclamation, gave a thumbs up and patted his stomach before proclaiming the cicada "tasty."
Ehrlich's proclamation captured the spirit of the event: "Periodical cicadas offer a harmless, short diversion from the more serious aspects of modern life."
Menchey, the assistant secretary for policy, was a little more skittish -- or perhaps, honest -- than most when it came time to eat one. "Is there a sauce or something I can dip this in?" he asked, holding his fritter aloft. There wasn't. Down it went. "This was peer pressure," he said. "I succumbed."