A cicada molts

A cicada molts and dries its wings after spending 17 years in its subterranean hide-out. (Sun photo by Jerry Jackson / May 11, 2004)

The season of the cicada has arrived.

From Roland Park to College Park, the first wave of 17-year cicadas known as Brood X are crawling from subterranean hide-outs under cover of night and quietly - for now - taking positions in trees around the Baltimore area.

"It really is going on in people's yards, they just don't see it," said University of Maryland entomologist Mike Raupp, who has been perhaps the most tenacious tracker of Brood X's progress.

Raupp says he spotted "thousands" of cicadas in trees near the university campus the previous two evenings, as he and a National Geographic film crew documented what is being billed by scientists as the largest insect emergence in the world.

State officials will welcome the cicadas back today with a press event where they plan to offer such tips as where to see the insects and how to turn them into fly-fishing lures - not to mention hors d'oeuvres.

Billions of the sex-starved, flight-challenged insects remain underground, expected to surface in the coming days. But the first arrivals are already attracting attention.

In Roland Park, Amanda Toombs watched yesterday as her 2-year-old son Tommy plucked an empty, tea-colored cicada shell from the grass outside St. David's Nursery School.

"Do you like cicadas?" Toombs asked.

Tommy nodded shyly, then casually plucked off its legs.

A cicada nymph flees its burrow at sunset, climbs the nearest vertical object - typically a tree - and sheds its skin. As its exoskeleton hardens, its creamy white body darkens. Four to six days later, the nymph has become an adult and fills the air with its high-decibel dirges.

From the bug's perspective, being first can be a dicey strategy. Males who emerge early have the best shot at mating.

"If you're out early," notes Raupp, "you get the first date."

But there's a downside: Early risers can become easy pickings for robins, squirrels and other predators.

"These first ones are kind of cannon fodder: What you're going to find are shed skin and lots of wings," says Gaye Williams an entomologist at the state Department of Agriculture.

That's what drivers such as Harriett Tinker are also starting to find. The Cockeysville resident was on her way to work when "a big buzzy thing hit my windshield."

"It splatted and the body disappeared, but I thought, 'Aha, cicadas,'" she said.

Lew Shell, a horticultural consultant with the University of Maryland's Home and Garden Information Center, said that cicada sightings are just starting to trickle in from across the state. "I heard one singing in my own neighborhood after dark last night," said Shell, who lives in the Glen Burnie area.

Why some streets now have cicadas while others don't is an open question. Scientists know that cicadas typically leave their holes when the ground temperature reaches 64 degrees Fahrenheit. One theory: Lawns with a southern exposure warm faster and so see cicadas earlier.

"The exact cues are a little more of mystery," Raupp said.