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Loud, fascinating cicadas making first local appearance since 1996

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Posted: Friday, May 31, 2013 9:14 pm

RICHMOND -- Those bug-eyed lovers called 17-year cicadas are up and buzzing in Central Virginia. If you haven't heard them yet, here are a few descriptions: "Deafening," said Rhett duPont in Chesterfield County's Salisbury community.

"Almost deafening," said Tom Stevenson of the Beaverdam area northwest of Ashland.

"Deafening," said Aaron Lee, who heard them in western Henrico County.

Not everyone's whining about the whining.

When duPont finds the insects in places they might get run over, he puts them on a tree trunk.

"It's almost like they say, 'Thank you,'" said duPont, a retired stock market floor trader. "They turn around and look at you."

When a few got in duPont's house, "I carefully wrapped my hand around them, and they screamed with an almost human voice -- I was astounded -- until I put them on the tree trunk, and then it all stopped."

The cicadas spend 17 years beneath the earth, feeding on root sap, before climbing above ground, where they shed their skins, mate, lay eggs and die, all in four to six weeks. Males attract females by singing like little chain saws.

The bugs started showing up about two weeks ago, apparently delayed a couple of weeks by the cool spring. They last visited Central Virginia in 1996.

Cicadas were singing and flying like crazy Wednesday in the wooded yards near Deep Run Park in Henrico.

"I'm loving it," said Barry Holloway over the buggy hum. His backyard was dotted with dime-sized holes through which the insects emerged.

"You might notice I haven't mowed my grass," Holloway. "I didn't want to kill the cicadas, so many were coming up out of the ground."

Neighbor Paula Murphy said of the invasion, "On one hand it's fascinating. On the other hand it's annoying ... It's also sad, because they die." Her backyard was littered with bug bodies.

There are 12 populations, or broods, of 17-year cicada. Different broods appear in different regions in different years.

The cicadas showing up now are from Brood II, as in 2. Brood II stretches from North Carolina, through Southside, Central and Northern Virginia, to Connecticut.

After mating, females lay eggs in punctures they make at the ends of twigs.

The punctures can harm small trees — you can cover them loosely in cheese cloth — but can actually help larger trees, giving them a sort of natural pruning, said Gene Kritsky, a cicada expert at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati.

A dog that eats too many cicadas can get an intestinal obstruction, Kritsky said.

Otherwise, cicadas are harmless. They don't bite or sting. They overcome birds and other predators through sheer numbers.

If cicadas creep you out, the National Pest Management Association suggests you carry an umbrella to keep them off your hair and skin and listen to music through ear buds to smother the sound.

Cicadas are impressive creatures, about 1½ inches long with black bodies and wings lined with orange veins. But it's their bulbous red eyes that really get people.

"It kind of looked space age, like an alien," said Diane Baker, a horticulturist who came across cicadas while working at Salisbury.

While cicadas are thick in places, they don't seem widespread across the region. "This [emergence] has been kind of spotty," said Eric R. Day, a Virginia Tech insect expert.

It's possible that a lot of the cicadas are in wooded areas away from people, Day said.

Claudia Arnold Brookman of Beaverdam said in an email: "They are apparently ALL living in my front yard. Hundreds emerged and are living in my apple tree and amongst my irises ... It's a lovely sight and sound. I love cicadas and I'm glad to play host."

Samuel Orr of Bloomington, Ind., is making a film about cicadas. Orr, in his early 40s, became fascinated with the bugs as a child when he found their shed skins and heard their calls. Their short visit to the human world touches Orr.

"They come out of the ground, and they've got only a matter of days or a couple of weeks to live. It's poignant in a lot of ways … I don't know if a lot of people think about them from that perspective, especially when they are taking the wings off them or stamping on them or spraying poison all over them because they are in their shrubbery."

The cicadas' eggs hatch in summer. Rice-size babies drop to the ground and dig in for the long wait.

"They say once every 17 years," said duPont, the Salisbury man, in a voice tinged with awe. "I'm 75. I wonder if I'm going to see this again."

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