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Spring Blooms, And So Do The Creepy Crawlies


It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Spring is here. And just as temperatures begin to creep up, so do the bugs - all matter of creepy crawlies. Among the noisiest and, for my money, most repulsive...


LYDEN: ...cicadas.

MICHAEL RAUPP: My name is Michael J. Raupp. I'm professor of entomology and the bug guy here at the University of Maryland, College Park.

LYDEN: Raupp is lucky for a guy who makes bugs his business. He's living in the heart of what people in his world consider insect Super Bowl. Now, I don't normally think of myself as a squeamish type, really, but maybe you're OK with shoveling dead cicadas in the backyard by the wheelbarrow. If not, and you live on the East Coast, be on the lookout for a teeming horde is on its way.


RAUPP: This one's going to be absolutely spectacular. This one's going to go all the way from northern North Carolina up to the Hudson Valley in New York.

LYDEN: They're known as the Brood II cicadas, and they've been developing underground 17 years.

RAUPP: I've seen estimates as high as a billion cicadas per square mile. This is really going to rock some people's world.

LYDEN: Like mine. But Raupp says there's really nothing to fear.

RAUPP: Understand that they're not going to hurt you or your children or your pets. They're not going to breed in your house.

LYDEN: And cicadas actually do a lot of good, like aerating the soil and providing a good meal.

RAUPP: In about six weeks, when these guys make the big break for it, the birds are simply going to go nuts. Everything on the planet is going to want to eat a cicada. And historically, we know that Native Americans consider the cicada emergence a huge bounty because there was just simply so much protein out there.

LYDEN: There are about 18 broods of periodical cicadas. Those that live for 13 or 17 years underground, those aren't to be confused with the annual cicadas, which appear later on in the summer. Raupp says gardeners have already begun to uncover the Brood II nymphs in the soil. And once the soil hits the 64-degree mark, things will really start to heat up.

RAUPP: They'll build their escape chimneys from their subterranean grips. So underneath trees, we'll begin to see holes about the size of the dime, and in some cases, little mud tubes that might extend an inch or two above the surface of the soil.

LYDEN: Oh, how exciting. Then the nymphs will shed their skins, climb the tree and then amorous males (unintelligible).

RAUPP: The sound is all about love. It's about romance. They make this noise with an organ called the tymbal, which is like a drum pad, just beneath their wings. They vibrate this. Now, there'll be three different songs that the male uses to attract his mate. The first is something like, hey, I think I've seen you here before. The second one is, wow, that's a really pretty outfit you have on. And the third one is something like, you want to come back to my place and look at the etchings?

LYDEN: They only get to live and love a few weeks above ground. Around late June, their siren song sort of peter out, and so will the cicadas. But we can look forward to meeting them here in the next generation in 2030.


LYDEN: But wait, there's more. Here's another horror, friends: stink bugs. I once had one crawl in my ear while I was sleeping.


TRACY LESKEY: Officially, they have been detected in 40 states and the District of Columbia, as well as Ontario, Canada.

LYDEN: That's Tracy Leskey.

LESKEY: I'm a research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

LYDEN: And her specialty is stink bugs.


LESKEY: This insect is commonly referred to as brown marmorated stink bug. The scientific name is halyomorpha halys. And this is an invasive species. It's actually native to China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

LYDEN: The stink bug came over to the U.S. in the late 1990s, probably aboard a shipment from China.

LESKEY: These are a large, conspicuous bug. If you look at it from above, they look similar in shape to a shield. Now, the name marmorated means marbled, and that's based on the appearance of the black and white pattern that you see on the sides of their abdomen. They also have stripes on their antennae that are pretty conspicuous. They're pretty big, and because they're stink bugs, they have what we call piercing, sucking mouth parts, which is basically like a straw that they inserted to plants to feed on the juices.

LYDEN: That's right - only plant juices. No need to worry about those piercing, sucking mouth parts finding an arm or a leg. But, yeah, they can be a household gross-out for most people.

LESKEY: Especially, you know, when they find one poised on their toothbrush, that sort of thing.

LYDEN: But to farmers, brown marmorated stink bugs are destructive. That's how Leskey and the USDA got involved with the bugs. Farmers were worried about the impact on crops. These stink bugs will eat almost any crops, especially fruit, like apples and peaches.

LESKEY: They insert their mouth parts through the skin of the fruit and then suck up the juices, so leaving behind these dry, corky areas just beneath the skin. And oftentimes, it collapses, so you see these depressions on the surface of the fruit as well.

LYDEN: Right now, Leskey and the USDA are working out ways to control the spread of stink bugs, and one method they're trying is fighting bugs with other insects.

LESKEY: This is something that actually recognizes stink bug eggs as a really good meal.


LESKEY: It is a very tiny wasp. And so these wasps are in quarantine in Newark, Delaware, where they are being screened for their capacity to choose brown marmorated stink bug over our native stink bug species.

LYDEN: It's a risky strategy. What if the wasps go rogue? So stink bug researchers are really taking their time before they release any tiny wasp predators. Unfortunately, there will be no miracle cure on the line for this summer. It looks like it's going to be an especially stink bug-y one.

LESKEY: We have started to see a little bit of activity here in our own building. I have quite a few walking around my office. I think they actually are taunting me at this point.


LYDEN: With all these creepy, crawly bugs on the way, I think it's about time to book a summer vacation to, say, Antarctica. Anyplace but here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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