Non-Humans

Big Bug Man

UPDATED 06/07/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/07/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT

They're storming Cincinnati, or at least they're trying. There's protective netting on the saplings and cheesecloth on the baby strollers. There are phobia workshops for the anxiety-prone. And there's the noise—like a lawn mower at full throttle, circling your patio every few seconds. If it were a horror film, it would be called Day of the Cicadas—and it may be coming to a field-park-garden-shrub near you.

From now through late June several billion of the giant bugs—up to 2 in. long, with beady red eyes and orange-veined wings—will swarm swaths of the eastern United States, especially Cincinnati. They do it every 17 years because—well, that's their job: to emerge, mate and die, until their next scheduled appearance, in May 2021. Before they exit they will have bugged millions of people from Michigan to Georgia. But they will not have bugged Gene Kritsky.

"I live for this," says the entomologist, self-proclaimed "Cicada Hunter" and a leading expert. "It's essentially my life." He tries hard to spread the love—the truly passionate can pick up his recent book Periodical Cicadas: The Plague and the Puzzle—but recognizes that the average person may not share his enthusiasm. Right now, for instance, his fellow Cincinnatians are armed to the teeth with tennis rackets, flyswatters and even "Cicadanators" (a metal hybrid of the two dreamed up by a dry cleaner and sold for $3.99 at the local Walgreens). "We really do freak out over these things," says Dr. Kritsky, editor of the American Entomologist. "People are just afraid of big bugs."

It's that sort of attitude that led to "Squash 'em Day," a tongue-in-cheek concept dreamed up by Mayor Charlie Luken during the last invasion. ("I got in a lot of trouble with the animal-rights people for that," recalls the mayor. "Let's just say cicadas are an incredible nuisance.") Swarms can grow so large that roads become slick with carcasses. Even so, the insects, more akin to aphids than locusts, "don't bite, don't sting, and they don't carry disease," Kritsky, 50, points out. The only real damage they seem to do is to young trees and bushes, to people with certain food allergies and to pets sickened by eating too many of the adults, whose crunchy exoskeletons are difficult to digest.

Kritsky may well have been born for bug work. Exhibit A: As a 3-year-old in North Dakota, recalls his older sister Candi, "he would sit and watch ant piles endlessly." Perhaps a Ph.D. in entomology and a biology professorship—at the College of Mount St. Joseph, beginning in 1983—were inevitable. Since then he has been in cicada heaven. During the 1987 Brood X (a.k.a. Brood 10) assault, he says he received more than 800 calls from locals who helped him track emergence patterns. (Brood X is one of the arbitrary designations used to distinguish between groups of cicadas, which emerge in different years.) Of course, with 17 years between Brood X swarms, there is ample downtime, which Kritsky spends doing field research, writing and working summers for the National Parks Service. This year he is surveying grasshoppers in the Badlands of North Dakota, teaching and traveling with his wife, Jessee Smith, 26, a naturalist and jewelry designer. On one trip, they went to Europe in search of bee boles—stone niches used to house beehives between 1200 and 1900.

One more thing: Kritsky, like many—okay, some—Americans, likes to eat the occasional cicada. He says they taste a bit like creamed asparagus and are "Atkins friendly"—high in protein, low fat and...no carbs! "I've eaten many a cicada," says Kritsky, who agrees with other entomophages (eaters of insects) they are best savored when young, before developing their hard shells, which are difficult for humans to digest. "I ran across a cicada-chowder recipe that was made in the 1890s that I'm going to try out this year," he says.

Which leaves, as the 2004 invasion of six-legged hordes marches on, inevitable and unstoppable, across this great land, just one more essential question:

Is it "ci-kaaa-da," with a looong "a," or "ci-cah-da," with the shorter syllable?

Says the expert: "Ci-kaaa-da."

Pam Lambert. Angela T. Koenig in Cincinnati

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