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Return of the cicadas: Bothersome bugs on the way

By Ed Brock

In 1955 they came in black clouds from across the river in the Michigan town where Sue Jester lived.

"You didn't open your mouth or they'd fly in. You wore long sleeves. You'd get them in your hair," said Jester who now lives in Jonesboro. "If you walked on the sidewalk you couldn't help but step on them."

Red-eyed and shaking off 17 years of living underground, cicada Brood X (the X being the Roman numeral 10) has begun to rise from the ground in several north Georgia counties. And in some parts of the country at least they are expected to be more numerous than ever.

Specifically, they are the magicicadas, varying from the regular annual or "dog day" cicadas that inhabit Georgia and other Southern states in that they emerge all at one time after spending their juvenile years sucking sustenance from the roots of trees.

They shed their larval skin, spread their wings, and fly out to mate. And they make quite a ruckus.

"I don't even know what one looks like," said Vickie Oakes of Stockbridge. "But I know what they sound like."

Male cicadas possess a pair of drum-like organs on their sides that produce a high-pitched, sustained chirping sound to attract their mates. During an emergence the noise can get loud enough to drown out the sound of a lawnmower.

That's bad news to some people, but it's good news for others.

For Tony Gibson the cicada's song evokes images of his teen years in the summer of 1987 when the brood last emerged.

"I remember when we were playing baseball and hearing them," said Gibson, now 29 and the owner of Gibson Landscaping in Jonesboro. "To me that's kind of peaceful. It puts me to sleep like rain falling on the rooftop."

Gibson said he hopes his 16-month-old daughter will grow up with some memories of the current emergence.

Cicada lovers around the country are also gearing up with great excitement. On www.cicadamania.com they can buy T-shirts, learn more about their favorite insect or get a running update on the emergence.

The more culinary adventurous can also download "Cicada-licious: Cooking and Enjoying Periodical Cicadas," a recipe book written by Jenna Jadin and the University of Maryland Cicadamaniacs. The book includes recipes for "Sizzling Chili Cicadas," "Southern Cicada Tartlets" or simple "Chocolate Covered Cicadas."

Although the cicadas are noisy, large and, in some areas a threat to the peace of outdoor picnics and weddings, they are harmless, Clayton County Extension Service Agent Winston Eason said.

First, they don't bite. And they aren't even a serious threat to most trees, Eason said.

"The adults don't feed at all. It's the grubs that do most of the damage," Eason said.

One possible problem caused by the bugs is the damage they do to some young trees when the females cut slits into small twigs to lay their eggs, causing damage to the twigs known as "flagging."

"That flagging can cause a lot of smaller plants to die," Eason said.

But Clayton and Henry county residents probably won't need to cover their young trees with nets, the only way to protect them from the egg-laying female cicadas. The heaviest infestation will be in counties north of Atlanta, Georgia State University Professor of Entomology Nancy Hinkle said. This week Hinkle had received reports that the cicadas were already beginning to emerge in Fannin, Gilmer, Lumpkin, Union and White counties, though the brood has not quite achieved the kind of numbers that Jester remembers.

"Although one report claimed that it looked like the ground was moving," Hinkle said.

Jester said she didn't think the swarms would be as large as she remembered, anyway, due to the increased usage of pesticide since 1955. Hinkle said the loss of wooded areas through urbanization might also mean fewer cicadas.

But for those who love the bug, the trip into the Georgia mountains may be worth it, since the next big brood, Brood XIV for example, won't emerge until 2017.

"This is probably our very best opportunity we have for the next decade or two," Hinkle said.

Cicada watchers may want to make plans now, Hinkle said, because most of the public parks in north Georgia are already filling up.

There are 12 broods of 17-year cicadas and 3 broods of 13-year cicada, Hinkle said, but Brood X is the largest, stretching over 12 to 13 states and containing the most individual cicadas.

"For Georgia particularly Brood X is the largest," Hinkle said.

The cicadas are active all day but need some time in the morning to warm up. And they won't be around for long.

"By mid-June we'll probably see the numbers dropping off a bit," Hinkle said.

For those who can't make the trip, it's not completely impossible that some of the more wooded areas around Atlanta will fill with the cicada's droning melody, Eason said.

"It doesn't take a lot of cicadas to make a lot of noise," Eason said.