Sunday, February 29, 2004

People already abuzz over 17-year cicadas

Songs, parties, mascots celebrating the May return of 5 billion noisy insects

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Dr. Gene Kritsky, professor of biology at the College of Mount St. Joseph, is a nationally known cicada expert. He says he can't wait for their return.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/MEGGAN BOOKER

It is a bug that doesn't sting or bite. A bug that is harmless to humans. A bug that by itself would seem a mere pest.

But the Brood X cicada is never alone, and that's what makes it scary. Five billion are now amassed a few inches underground throughout Greater Cincinnati. And they are about to rise.

The 17-year periodical cicadas will burrow through the earth sometime between May 17 and May 25, then buzz around eating plant nutrients and singing their raspy songs throughout their six-week life span.

Cincinnatians are already bracing for the invasion. Ordering supplies. Canceling plans. Issuing warnings. Recording songs. Planning parties. Creating a mascot.

The bugs, hatched from eggs laid in 1987, are members of generation Brood X (Roman numeral 10), one of 15 broods of periodical cicadas scattered across the United States.

Cicadas have been documented in this country since 1633 when Plymouth Colony Gov. William Bradford wrote: "There was such a quantity of a great sort of flies like for the bigness of wasps or bumblebees, which came out of holes in the ground ..."

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Monday is Bug Bill Geist Day, an effort to lure Geist, the CBS Sunday Morning roving reporter who covers the offbeat, to Cincinnati at the height of spring's cicada invasion.

Mayor Luken will issue a proclamation and members of, the young professionals arm of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce will launch a letter-writing campaign. Luken even wrote a letter, which says in part: "Five billion cicadas are turning out in Cincinnati this spring to host a big ole buzzin' party just for you. We certainly hope you will attend."

The goal is to get Geist to broadcast live from Cincinnati at the height of the infestation. As Chamber public relations manager Raymond "Buz" Buse puts it, we want "to show the world how Cincinnati can be a fun town that turns adversity into a party."

Jim Knippenberg

Brood X is a combination of three species: Magicicada septendecim, the largest and noisiest, the all-black M. cassini and the narrow, tiger-striped M. septendecula.

The 5 billion estimate is right on target, says Dr. Gene Kritsky, professor of biology at the College of Mount St. Joseph and one of a handful of nationally known cicada experts.

The number is based on extrapolations from the 1987 emergence when there were 100 cicadas per square meter. The mass emergence is a survival strategy called "predator satiation." In simple terms: with such great numbers predators tire of eating them.

Kritsky can't wait to see them. "But I know there are people bothered by the emergence," he says. He has heard from dozens of couples planning outdoor weddings who want to know where they can escape the cicadas.

The Cincinnati Park district has been alerting people about the cicadas when they book outdoor facilities. "We have a paper that explains the cicada emergence. We ask that they read it, initial it and return it," says Jane Wakeman of Historic Properties, the firm that handles bookings many of the parks.

"We explain the whole situation when people call to book a park," says Hamilton County Parks spokesman Jim Rahtz.

Kritsky offers this outdoor party tip: Keep it east of I-71 and north of I-275. "The most intense infestation will be west of 71. I'd be surprised if a place like (Paramount's) Kings Island got more than a few strays. But a place like the zoo, that was one of 1987's heaviest infestations."

The zoo is ready. It will designate 12 buildings as Cicada Free Zones, says spokesman Chad Yelton. "We have two major outdoor events that coincide with the emergence - Zoo Babies opening May 15 and a huge temporary exhibit on dinosaurs opening May 28.

"But, really, our take on the whole thing is to just have fun with them. You can't beat them, so we'll use them to our advantage. We're a zoo, for heaven's sake."

Also celebrating the cicadas will be The Downtown Council, which is organizing bashes in Cicada Escape Zones., the young professionals arm of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, is working with the Council to nab national attention. They have talked Mayor Charlie Luken into proclaiming Monday as Bug Bill Geist Day to lure CBS Sunday Morning here for the emergence.

Downtown Council public relations manager Raymond "Buz" Buse has commissioned artist Bev Kirk to come up with a SuperCicada mascot for T-shirts, cocktail napkins, banners and a costume so the mascot can make live appearances.

Those appearances will be at venues, bars and restaurants that Buse is asking to hang banners designating themselves "Cicada Escape Zones." He's even planning a Cicada Cocktail Contest featuring bug-themed, not buggy, drinks.

MidPoint Music Festival founders Bill Donabedian and Sean Rhiney are asking local musicians to write original cicada-themed songs for a CD they hope to have out by May 1.

"It will have four tracks," Donabedian says. "An alternative/indie cut, a roots cut, a blues/jazz/new age cut and a DJ/electronic cut."

It may need a heavy metal one to be heard above the cicadas' incessant high-pitched hum.

"That's a mating call," Kritsky says. The male makes the sound with his tymbals, a small white patch on the abdomen that flexes back and forth, and it's loud because the abdomen is mostly hollow.

The females flick their wings, which makes a sound like a finger snapping a sheet of paper, to indicate the male can come closer.

Most cicadas, 85 percent, mate once, Kritsky says. But that one fling results in a whopper batch of eggs. One female can lay 400 to 600. She'll lay them on tree branches where they'll sit until early August, then fall to the ground.

The microscopic eggs fall into tiny cracks in the earth where the nymphs are hatched and spend the next 17 years around tree trunks sucking up xylem (juices from tree roots) and growing up to 1.5 inches in length. They'll molt or shed their skin four times before they emerge, fly, sing, mate and die.

"Factor in the dew and 90-degree temperatures and it could get pretty stinky," Kritsky warns.


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