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Going Buggy

Reprinted from Hail Dubyus courtesy Greg Uchrin ((c) Greg Uchrin)

West Virginia gets skinks.

P.N. Elrod gets the gift of a giant Emperor Moth.

Northern Virginia gets cicadas.

My fellow citizens of the great state of Virginia, we got robbed.

I feel like an extra in a ninth rate horror movie. The great outdoors sounds like the outtakes from Them. Even inside, sealed behind weather stripping and the white noise of air-conditioning, I can still hear the endless whrrwhrrwhrr of cicada mating calls.

Outside…well, I don't go outside if I can help it. The fat, brown shells of formerly immature cicadas dangle from every leaf of every deciduous tree in the yard. The shells cling to brickwork like Spiderman. They collect in little hills beside the stoops, under the grill, in the corners of the carport, in the outside stairwell to the basement.

And the smell! Anyone who says cicadas don't smell obviously doesn't live anywhere near a swarm. Dead cicadas smell exactly like shrimp -- shrimp bought from a chain supermarket the day after their sell-by date, then left in the car, in the sun, for three sweltering summer days. And there are lots of dead cicadas to go around.

Male cicadas die as soon as they mate. Female cicadas hang around just long enough to set up the next round of 17-year pests. In the normal run of things, dead cicadas would pile up almost as fast as their shells, but our squirrels consider the bugs' fat-filled butts the perfect breakfast treat, which means even more dead cicada parts on the patio, on the sidewalk, clogging the storm sewers…

I thought if I borrowed my gas mask from the office, my husband and I might be able to dig a mass bug grave. But for some reason, my bosses at the Pentagon didn't think a dozen pounds of deliquescing cicada parts qualified as a "toxic chemical incident" -- which just goes to show you what they know.

Fortunately, our local Western Pest Services supervisor did us the great kindness of removing several pounds of cicada corpses from our basement stairwell. But that pushed the limit of what he could do.

Pesticides don't work on the little red-eyed monsters -- at least no pesticide any sane person would want to try. Remember, these bugs wait 17 years to mate. That alone makes them a heck of a lot tougher than your average teenager, and everyone knows teenagers are immortal.

I worry about the rest of us.

The same bug experts who tell you cicadas don't stink also claim they can't hurt you. Technically speaking, the insects can't bite or sting. If they decide you look like a tree branch, they might try to come on board and take a drink. But the straw-like mouthpiece they use to feed doesn't work well on human skin, and even bugs know that trees don't move, much less jump around screaming while they try to smash you to a syrupy pulp.

Which brings me back to my point: cicadas can hurt you, because humans can't deal with them.

For example, last week one of the cicadas hanging around my kitchen door decided to hitch a ride on my hat. I never found out whether it wanted to see the world and meet a better class of bug, or simply dropped onto the wide, curled brim of my hat entirely by accident. I suspect the latter -- cicadas don't seem to fly as much as drop from a great height, frantically flapping their wings in a desperate attempt to avoid landing in a splat. (Based on personal observation, they usually splat.)

This one, however, landed on my hat and apparently did everything in his power to get better acquainted with the straw bow decorating hatband. The bow didn't respond, but when I boarded my usual bus to the Pentagon, the bus driver certainly did.

"You've got one of those bugs on your hat!" she squawked as I flashed my weekly bus pass.

"Thanks," I said. No problem, I thought. I removed my hat, reached outside the still open doors and smacked the hat against the side of the bus. The soft straw acted like a sling shot, propelling the bug into the air without damaging it or the hat.

Unfortunately, this meant the bug attained flight velocity, and where do think he wanted to fly? You guessed it. The bum tried to ride without paying too.

It never occurred to me that any creature would be so stupid as to fly into an express bus to the Pentagon. I only drag myself to the bus stop every workday morning through brute force of habit and by starving my higher brain functions of caffeine until it's too late to escape.

So, happily oblivious to our unwanted passenger, I slid into a seat and burrowed into my current paperback. The bus rumbled forward. The bus driver shrieked.

She jumped to her feet and started stomping a flamenco in the area in front of the "no passengers" line. Every time the heel of her boot struck the floor she let out this high-pitched squeal that sounded like a kitten on helium.

Wait a minute, if she's killing cicadas, who's driving the bus?

I felt my eyeballs bulge and my jaw drop until I looked like Wile E. Coyote after the laws of gravity caught up with him. Through the soles of my temporarily paralyzed feet I felt the gradually accelerating rotation of the bus's wheels as we rolled further and further down the street.

Oh no, the driver didn't engage the brakes! I wanted to bring this to her attention -- rather loudly -- but my moribund morning brain refused to transmit the necessary messages to my gaping mouth.

My fellow passengers seemed frozen in their seats, though across the aisle I thought I heard someone whimper, "Tell my children I love them."

The bus driver finally landed a facer on the offending insect.

Another thing the entomologists don't tell you: when you squish a cicada, they pop like a pimple full of yellow green pus. Fortunately, Six-Foot-Tall Squisher of Two-Inch Insects From on High rose above the slime and resumed her seat without further incident. A couple of passengers who boarded at a later stop wrenched their ankles sliding on the glop, but being regulars, they probably won't sue.

That afternoon, I attended a very civilized, cicada-free tea at the Ritz-Carlton. One of the guests, a friend currently living in Florida, confessed to being thrilled that the timing of her visit allowed her to experience the Brood of 2004 first-hand.

"You've got a lot of trees around your house, don't you Jean Marie? Have you seen any cicadas?" she asked.

"Um, yeah…"

"I'd really love to hear them. There aren't any cicadas where I'm staying in Ballston. They don't seem to like all the high-rises," she said.

I made a mental note to talk to my husband about moving to Ballston -- one of the more westerly municipalities in Arlington County, Virginia -- as soon as I got home.

"I don't suppose," my friend continued shyly, "that I could come over early one morning this weekend and listen to the chorus from your front steps. I know how you hate to get up early on the weekend, but you won't even know I'm there. I'll come by and leave before you're awake.

"And one more thing." She caught her lip between her teeth. "Do you think anyone would mind if I took one of the shells home as a kind of souvenir?"

Last night I carefully rolled three, heavy-duty, 30-gallon garbage bags around our largest, shiniest snow shovel and tied everything together with a big red bow. Before leaving it outside the front door, I attached a card with my friend's name, inviting her to take as many souvenirs as she liked.

Do you think I went a little over the top? I can never tell.

Jean Marie Ward

For the other side of the cicada story, check out Cicada Mania.

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