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Pests Emerge From Ground After 17 Years

May 26, 1987

BALTIMORE (AP) _ After 17 years of lying in the dark and sucking tree roots, billions of cicadas are emerging from the ground and preparing for a six-week orgy. It’s expected to be a noisy party.

The insects, often mistakenly called locusts, spend 17 years underground, feeding on roots. When they come out of the ground in mid-May, they climb tree trunks, shed their old skins, make a lot of noise, mate and die. The cicadas appear in the eastern United States annually, but by far the biggest brood is the one that last emerged in 1970.

Millions of the insects have been seen, but not heard, in Maryland this year. Trunks of some old elms in old north Baltimore neighborhoods are covered with climbing cicadas that have just crawled out of their old skins. The empty, yellow husks remain stuck to the trees.

The cicadas will start making their distinctive buzz - like vigorously shaken maracas - in about a week, after their new skins harden, said Gaye L. Williams, a state Department of Agriculture entomologist.

The insects will congregate by the thousands on trees, where they will make a ferocious racket and occasionally fall to the ground, startling humans and their pets.

Ms. Williams says she has gotten calls of concern from people planning outdoor functions, worried about the red-eyed, black bugs dropping from trees onto their picnics.

″People are calling up and asking ’Should we have this picnic?‴ she said. ″They’re asking the wrong person. People really are focusing on the nuisance factor, which is sad.″

Because of fears that cicadas would prove disruptive, the College of Notre Dame planned for the first time in its 114-year history to hold commencement indoors, said Margaret Goldsboro, spokeswoman for the liberal arts school.

She said rain had chased the event indoors several times, but graduation had never before been planned for indoors.

An outdoor ceremony this year could be ″total disaster,″ Sister Delia Dowling, the academic dean, explained in a letter to students and faculty.

″The cicadas could jump from gown to gown, tassel to tassel, with no regard to rank or degree,″ she wrote. ″They could help themselves to the vegetable dip, cheese and punch.″

Despite her predictions, the cicadas were quiet on graduation day Saturday.

But it rained.

Residents along Baltimore’s elm-shaded Loch Raven Boulevard say they haven’t yet been annoyed by the cicadas, but some remember the big brood of 1970.

″Oh, my gracious, they made noise and were all over everything,″ said Harold Brown, 48. ″Night before last, me and my wife watched some come out of the ground. They eat the leaves, and I imagine they’ll cause lots of damage.″

Actually, Ms. Williams said, cicadas don’t eat when they are above ground. Once they emerge, their sole aim is to mate.

They do have other reasons for being, providing food for other animals, and helping to aerate the soil, Ms. Williams said.

But people still worry about them. James Ruffin, 21, said his mother took cicadas into account when she planned a barbecue to celebrate the college graduations of James and his brother, Chris, 24.

″My Mom was nervous about it, and we’re making alternate plans to move it inside if necessary,″ James Ruffin said.

Three species of 17-year cicadas live in Maryland, the main difference being size. The smallest are about three-quarters of an inch long; the largest are about twice that size.

Males and females are born in roughly equal numbers. Males have hollow abdomens equipped with special membranes called tymbals, which are clicked in and out like tin can lids. The series of clicks, amplified by the hollow abdomen, results in the distinctive mating call.

″The first noise means, ’All cicadas get together,‴ Ms. Williams said. ″Then they sort themselves out, because each species makes a distinctive noise. It’s sort of like the Washington bar scene - jocks gather in one corner, intellectuals get together in another corner.″

Ms. Williams said she is worried that the cicada population is dwindling because of the destruction of their environment. Tree removal harms cicadas because they then don’t have a place to gather and mate. Covering the ground with concrete and asphalt traps them underground. She said she would like some measures taken to ensure the insects’ survival.

″They have six weeks to get up and party and move around,″ Ms. Williams said. ″Six weeks from now, they’re going to be gone. Then, in 2004, I’ll be getting phone calls again - at least, I hope so.″

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