As a public service to readers, we asked Gaye Williams, a scientist at the state agriculture department who specializes in insect studies a few questions about cicadas posed by students at Fallstaff Middle School.
When will they get here?
I expect to see some by the third week in May and real big bunches the first week in June. They tend to emerge after a rain just around sundown. They will come out over several days.
Do we expect like swarms of them and we can't leave our house for a day?
We can expect large numbers on trees and some flying through the air but not buzzing around your head like bees or flies. They're not good flyers. There's nothing attractive about us to cicadas. They prefer to stay away from us.
From my point of view, there's not going to be any day you can't leave your house. People who are afraid of bugs might not want to go out during the first couple of weeks of June. But for the average person who likes bugs, it will be great.
Do they get in your car and bang against the window and bang against your head?
You might have one or two lying in the car but it's not their favorite way of getting around. They're mostly interested in gathering in trees and bushes. The insides of cars are too hot and there's nothing for them to do. If one gets in your car, all you'd have to do is stop and put it gently outside.
Where will they be? Just in Maryland?
They will be all over the Northeastern United States, down to Virginia. I don't know the northern-most boundary. They're not found west of the Mississippi. But they only go where there is grass and trees. They're not able to feed on cement and they don't have little jackhammers to move through cement.
They don't live long, do they?
The adult insect will only live about three or four weeks, if it doesn't get hit by a car, swatted by a vicious person, get eaten by a cat or bird or fall in water and drown. We'll probably see the last adult by the end of June.
But kids should remember that this little insect is older than they are. It's 17 years old, a little teenager.
What happens when they're all dead, all on the ground and crunching?
You'll see their little dead bodies around for a few weeks. The external skeletons break down pretty fast, especially if we have some rain.
[After the end of June] then everything will be quiet. About six to eight weeks later, the tiny eggs laid into twigs of trees will hatch and microscopic nymphs will land on the ground and dig under. People won't even see them. Not until 2004.
Why does it take 17 years for them to come back?
Nobody knows. We do know or suppose that their ancestor was a cicada that lived a very long time. [The 17-year cycle] is probably just a defense mechanism that has become very successful. The only ones [that don't survive] are 17-year cicadas that have a bad internal clock and come out in 16 or 18 years. They aren't going to make the grade because when they come out there's no one else around. But the rest all emerge at once and party at once. There's safety in gigantic numbers.
What good do they do?
How can you answer that? They're just a wonder of nature. The good that they do is just that they're there, a marvelous variation on a theme, an insect able to live 17 years. They aerate your lawn and when they come up they provide food for birds, raccoons and possums. Like a giant crab feast where you don't have to pay for the crabs.
They don't sting, bite, scratch, poison people or even jump very fast. Little kids love to eat them. Just like a little sushi, crunchy sushi.
People have to remember that we're not the only species on this earth and many species are here because they have a right to be here. They don't hurt us -- they're just something to be admired. You might even say, "What good are we?"
From Sun archive: 1987
'Do they get in the car?
'The return of cicadas: is it an occasion to marvel at nature -- or time to sweat out the swarm?
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