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Brood X falls into silence

Pssst. Feel like something's missing out there?

It's the noise.

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After two weeks of incessant treetop warbling, and a shrill rasping like a million angry rattlesnakes, the love-chorus of the 17-year cicada may finally be waning in Maryland.

"They're dropping in volume," said entomologist Gaye Williams, of the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "They're just starting to poop out. I've seen a lot of little guys lying on the ground squawking like a heart monitor, which is very sad."

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Three and a half weeks after they emerged, the Brood X cicadas are wrapping up the job they came to do.

"All the babes have been mated, and the boy-bands are out of business, so there's no real purpose anymore for the chorusing," said Mike Raupp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland College Park.

What's left is a rising tide of dead cicadas, and an increasingly noticeable "flagging" in the trees they seek out for their trysts. The mostly harmless wilting and browning at the tips of many branches signals where the females have sliced the bark to deposit their eggs.

In another two weeks, the experts say, it will all be over but the cleanup. "I'm gonna miss 'em," Raupp said. "This has been awfully good fun."

The 2004 emergence of the Brood X cicadas in the Baltimore region began May 11. The insects took a week or more to crawl out of the ground in large numbers, shed their nymphal skins, spread their wings and begin to sing. They quickly hit full volume, blasting through state and local noise ordinances at 90 decibels in some places.

For a while, the air seemed full of the blundering bugs. Favored trees were swarmed. Countless wayward cicadas slipped down chimneys into living rooms, landed on car seats and pedestrians, or flew into fatal (for the cicadas) encounters with dogs or traffic.

But most - or at least enough to assure their progeny will emerge in 2021 - sorted themselves out in the trees by song and species, and set about doing what Nature intended.

A few late-comers may miss the action. "I thought my yard was done. But I found 20 of them hanging like beautiful white flowers," Williams said this week. "They're going to be way late for the party."

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'Sort of sad'

As the number of newly emerging nymphs has plummeted, and the legion of spent adults grows, the size and volume of the mating chorus has dwindled.

"It's declined very dramatically here in College Park," Raupp said. "It's not nearly the volume or intensity of last week or even the week before. The dead are everywhere, and the hedgerows are loaded with females laying their eggs."

For some, the silence couldn't come too soon. But for others, it's somehow poignant.

"It's quieter, and it's sort of sad," said Traci Elder of Lauraville. "See, we like it, mainly because of other noises it blocks out." Such as the telephone. The family missed more than one call when the rings were drowned out by the cicadas.

"We're hearing more single cicadas now, as opposed to hearing the swarm," Elder said. "They're sort of making a buzzing sound, like a windup car."

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Her husband, Gavin, a musician, lamented a lost opportunity. "I never got a chance to record them," he said. "A combination of temperature and one particularly bad storm totally knocked them out."

The experts agree.

Weather

"I don't think that they are winding down as much as the weather is slowing them down," said Keith Clay, an Indiana University entomologist. "They are in full force in their mating, egg-laying phase, and I expect that to go on for another 10 days or so."

Others said cooler temperatures and thunderstorms may have dampened the cicadas' ardor and dislocated many of them. "We know in downpours it does dislodge the cicadas and put them on the ground" where they are more vulnerable to predators, Raupp said.

But mostly he believes the insects' life cycle has simply begun to run its course. And the signs of their reproductive success are turning up in trees everywhere.

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"If you took the time to look, on the larger oaks and maples you could see on a lot of the terminal branches the leaves were drooping and drying up, and the twigs were snapping down," said Mike Schauff, an entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture research station in Beltsville.

Damage from the females' egg-laying does no permanent injury to mature trees. But young trees will remain vulnerable until the insects' work has ended. "If I had anything netted, I would keep it on for the next couple of weeks," Williams said.

After the adults fall silent and die, their eggs will remain in the branches until late July. Then they'll hatch, and the ant-like nymphs will drop to the ground and burrow into the soil, where they'll spend the next 17 years sipping root fluids.

'A good year'

As the cicada Class of 2004 becomes compost, entomologists are already anticipating the return of more mundane insect fare. "There are a lot of fall webworms," Raupp said.

And plentiful rains have topped off the mosquito nurseries. "The tree holes are full, the bird baths are full, and there is some standing water in the puddles and ruts," Raupp said. "The temperatures are getting up there and the first Asian tigers [mosquitoes] are biting. It's gonna be a good year."

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A what?

"It's the bug guy's perspective," he explained. "A good year means there are gonna be a lot of them."


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