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Cicadas are ‘insect debutantes’; let’s not treat them as frightening invaders | COMMENTARY

Periodical cicadas are seen in tunnels underneath a piece of garden flagstone in Towson as they prepare to emerge in the coming weeks with the rest of Brood X. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun).
Periodical cicadas are seen in tunnels underneath a piece of garden flagstone in Towson as they prepare to emerge in the coming weeks with the rest of Brood X. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun). (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Ocean City has decided to run ads declaring the Atlantic Ocean resort a “Cicada Free Zone” in hopes of attracting more visitors. Pest control companies are rolling out advisories on how best to eradicate them with a “cicada treatment plan.” And another group often unfairly maligned as pesky, the mainstream media, is running endless articles about the coming hordes of giant bugs, like they were a plague sprung to life from the pages of Exodus. “Billions (Yes, Billions) of Cicadas Soon to Emerge From Underground,” The New York Times has warned without even bothering to mention the far more troublesome plague of commuters that emerges from that city’s underground tubes just about every day.

Ladies and gentlemen, is this any way to welcome the imminent return of Brood X cicadas last seen in these parts in 2004 (stragglers and early arrivals not included)? As insects go, they are high on the gee-whiz index and relatively low on the annoyance scale. For those who require introduction, periodical cicadas are relatively large (perhaps 2 inches long) with large clear wings and beady red eyes. They do not sting. They do not bite. They do not carry disease. They do not even eat leaves and, like in-laws and sweet corn sold from the back of roadside pick-up trucks, they’re just here for the summer. They are clumsy flyers and shed their skins. At worst, they are loud, as males “sing” to attract mates and the females can harm trees when they lay their eggs in narrow branches. But that’s about it.

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If some people find these curious creatures frightening, that’s really not the fault of cicadas. If you emerged after a 17-year nap underground you might seem awkward and a bit scary, too. And while we surely wouldn’t begrudge resort towns like Ocean City from doing anything they can to lure back tourists after suffering their own once-in-a-century plague from the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-2021, must they encourage irrational behavior? Perhaps the temptation was too great. The Delmarva peninsula’s sandy soil is less nurturing to cicadas and their presence on the beach is extremely rare. But if tomorrow, Western Maryland’s Deep Creek Lake declares itself a zone free of those swarms of blood-thirsty saltwater mosquitos and vicious biting black flies that haunt Assateague National Seashore, we’re going to say we told you so in a big way.

We bet a lot of people living in the 14-state Brood X zone, which extends from the East Coast to the Midwest, actually have a lot of fond memories of past visits. Local scientists have already been chronicling their digging of tunnels in preparation for emergence. They are nothing short of a miracle, invisible for years as they sucked tree sap root underground like babies at the bottle, and then suddenly in huge numbers all around us like a blizzard, but for just four to six weeks so they can participate in what might be termed a legendary party: They mate, reproduce and then shuffle off this mortal coil. They run opposite to the vast majority of the species living on this planet: Long childhood, brief adulthood. Pets will chase them across the yard. Kids will pluck their shells from trees; the braver will catch them live. People will fall asleep each night to their racket.

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What were you doing 17 years ago? Where will you be in 2038 when they are back again? Periodical cicadas are a marker for our longer, but far less dramatic, human lives. We see them in our youth, then when we are adults, in middle age and beyond. We will tell our stories of cicada encounters to our children and grandchildren — not to instill fear, but to encourage wonder and joy. And perhaps we’ll also start to notice the annual variety of cicada, less numerous, less glamorous but part of our natural world, too. And then maybe the other creatures, great and small, that deserve our admiration as well.

Finally, we would leave you with the words of the late, great Ogden Nash whose own lifecycle ended in Baltimore 50 years (or nearly three cicada appearances) ago this month. “Overhead, underfoot, they abound,” he wrote in “Locust-lovers, attention!” a poem that still beautifully captures the moment. “And they have been seventeen years in the ground. For seventeen years they were immune to politics and class war and capital taunts and labor taunts, And now they have come out like billions of insect debutantes.”

Enjoy.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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