'Cicada cash' rumor squashed

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Eye-color variations in the cicada are rare. About 99% of them have red eyes.
The buzz began last week, when word spread that Johns Hopkins University was paying $100 -- or maybe even $1,000 -- for rare blue-eyed cicadas.

Scores of callers hoping to cash in on their oddball bugs started ringing up the university's biology department soon after the normally red-eyed insects began emerging from the ground.

Alas, it's a hoax.

"We tell them as far as we know, no one is offering to buy blue-eyed cicadas," said Cindy Holstein, the department's administrator.

But that hasn't stopped the calls.

"It's constant," she said. "You hang up the phone, and you hear another one." Other university offices keep forwarding more inquiries.

It's easy to see how people might be fooled, especially those with memories of Baltimore summers shortly after World War II. Back in 1947, Johns Hopkins University biologist William D. McElroy announced he would pay Baltimore kids 25 cents for every 100 fireflies they could catch.

McElroy needed the bugs for his pioneering research into the mysteries of bio-luminescence, and the kids really came through. For years they sent him lightning bugs -- as many as a million in a summer.

No one at Hopkins today is studying cicadas. The biology department doesn't even have an entomologist.

The College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati has one -- cicada expert Gene Kritsky. He said yesterday that eye-color variations in the 17-year cicadas have been noted for many years. But they're "quite rare, well less than 1 percent."

Instances of blue, silver and white eyes have been reported in a number of different cicada broods. "I usually get a report or see one for every emergence," he said. "I saw one in 1999, when Brood V emerged. I found one in Cincinnati with silvery-white eyes."

Gaye Williams, the Maryland Department of Agriculture biologist on the cicada beat, said "of all the thousands and thousands of cicadas I've seen, I've only encountered three with these colors."

She nabbed two in her yard in 1987, she said, and one yesterday just seconds before her dog would have made a snack of it. "It's very rare, and there is no money in it for anybody," she said.

No one has studied the phenomenon, but Williams urged anyone who finds an other-than-red-eyed cicada to report it to Maryland naturalist John Zyla's Web site, (click on "Contact us").

Reports to the site are used to update cicada distribution maps, so "people are going to be actually assisting the scientific study," Williams said.

It's not clear where the cash-for-cicadas rumor started. But like the bugs themselves, it seems to reappear every 17 years.

"We did have it in '87, and it generated a lot of calls," said Tom Saunders, supervisor at Baltimore's Rumor Control Center. But there have been no calls to his hot line so far this year.

Andy Diamond of Pikesville was 7 years old in June 1987. He heard about the Hopkins cicada bounty from his teacher and thought he'd scored $1,000 after he found a blue-eyed one in his back yard.

No such luck. But he did get $10 from a local radio personality, 98 Rock's Bob Lopez.

Diamond also had his picture in the newspaper. "It was cool for a couple of minutes," he recalled yesterday. Now a 24-year-old mortgage broker, he said his Pikesville home is surrounded by cicadas. "They're everywhere," he said, but he hasn't had time to look for the blue-eyed mutants.

98 Rock's name came up again this year when Holstein asked this year's callers where they'd heard that Hopkins was paying for blue-eyed cicadas. Some said they had heard it on 98 Rock (WIYY).

"Completely false," WIYY program director David Hill said yesterday. The only on-air mention he knew of came yesterday, he said, when Lopez recalled the [false] 1987 rumors and the money he paid for Andy Diamond's bug.

Another caller to Hopkins claimed "there were fliers all around saying Hopkins was paying $1,000," the biology department administrator said.

The caller said he hadn't seen the fliers himself, Holstein recalled, "but his friend's mom said they were posted in Harford County public schools."

Harford school spokesman Don Morrison queried the schools and said, "We have no evidence any such flier is being circulated."

Baltimore's Rumor Control Line is 410-396-1188.