These little bug houses, some with built-in magnifying windows and carrying straps, are a step up from the old mayonnaise jars we used when I was a kid. But the instinct is the same; gather up some old leaf litter and a couple of broken sticks and you’ve created a habitat, a window into the fascinating world of bugs.
We are all about the world of bugs here this week, in our leafy, soon-to-be infested Midwestern suburb.
The cicadas are coming out, emerging from 17-years underground in the cold earth. They climb out of holes the size of thumbtacks and crawl weakly across the grass and the sidewalks until they find a tree trunk that hasn’t been barricaded against them.
Then they start another long, slow climb up the trunk, discarding a crackly exoskeleton on their way to the top. By the time they get there they have transformed from clumsy brown beetles into noisy, love-seeking, red-eyed flying spectacles.
The skeletons remain stuck to the trunks by the dozens, soon to be the hundreds and the thousands, from what we are told.
Not all of them will make it to the treetops. Some of them, like Elaina's bug, will be scooped up by first-graders into fancy bug catchers or old jars and kept for observation.
Bugs who cross paths with the fourth-graders won’t be so lucky. The game in fourth-grade involves knocking them off the trunks with sticks and crunching them underneath their shoes while making loud whooping sounds. This is a boys’ game, of course. Fourth-grade girls think it is appalling.
My third-grade daughter would agree. She spends one evening coaching a group of the slow-moving insects from their holes in the lawn to safety across the sidewalk. "Come on little bug," she calls.
It takes a long time. But she is patient. She crouches down and watches. Then she pops ups and pretends to race them to the tree. She wins every time.
But they are not all junior entomologists around here. Third-grade boys will eat cicadas on a dare. But usually just the shells. Some kids traffic in cicada gossip. A certain third-grade teacher whose name begins with mmmm reportedly ate one whole for $20. But that was 17 years ago.
Jamie has to be talked through her morning walk to school, a few blocks that for this squealing, bug-phobic nine-year-old, have become intolerable.
"Just keep your head up," says Jamie’s mom. "Don’t look down."
That is not the recommended strategy a few blocks west, at the middle school, where vigilance is the better course.
Otherwise there is the risk of becoming the next victim in an ongoing wave of cicada pranks that is sweeping through the campus like, well, like cicadas.
Unwary sixth graders arriving in the cafeteria after recess find themselves wearing cicadas on their backs. This is spit-your-milk-out funny to the kids behind them, the comedy ratcheting up in proportion to the time it takes for the victim to discover the bugging – and in the best of all possible circumstances – react with flailing or shrieks.
Of course, it is just a matter of time before this practice is co-opted by the fashion-forward set and everyone will be wearing them on purpose.
In the meantime, on other parts of the campus, the cicadas have more value as artillery. My sixth-grade boy, who not so long ago accompanied me on backyard bug expeditions, tells me that kids load their pockets with bugs then sneak behind enemy lines and launch a fusillade.
Laundry is going to be pretty interesting around here for the next few weeks.
Fallon has been conducting a cicada census on her walks around the neighborhood. "I saw eleven cicadas!" she breathlessly announced on the first day. Then it was 248. Now she’s up to 300 and something.
She is not the only one counting. Amelia saw 14. But while third-graders are counting the bugs, the grownups are counting the days.
My neighbor tells me he lived through this before as a kid. It’s different now. Now he looks at his meticulous suburban landscaping and worries about the mess. He is thinking of getting a leaf blower.
I am thinking of getting one of those fancy plastic bug catchers.
Photo: Pickle jar cicadas