Palatine, Ill., woman to pilot cicada museum on wheels

Monday, March 19, 2007

PALATINE, Ill. -- Some people really seem to enjoy plump cicadas fried in butter.

But not everyone is sold on the idea of snacking on the soon-to-be numerous insects. Melissa Senf, an expert on the critters, is so far noncommittal.

"I'm considering it," said Senf, who has been hired by the Lake County Forest Preserve District to spread the word about the large, somewhat scary-looking bugs.

Forest preserve officials want to inform the public in advance of the once-every-17-year cicada emergence in northern Illinois this spring.

Starting April 16, the forest preserve district's Cicada Mobile will be motoring to schools, festivals, farmers markets and other community gatherings through July. The program is free.

Through several outdoor exhibits, schoolchildren and the general public can learn about cicada lifestyles and ecology, how the males make a distinctive and sometimes deafening noise, their impact around the world, and where they'll be this spring. They can even learn about how to eat the bugs.

"You could describe it as a museum on wheels," said Senf, a Palatine resident who has a degree in animal science and has worked as a zookeeper.

Beginning in May

Educators and public officials know a potentially huge emergence of the harmless but unusual insects is expected beginning in late May. Senf said Cicada Mobile appearances for April and May already are nearly booked.

"It's an amazing phenomenon to see thousands upon thousands of cicadas coming out of the ground at once," said Senf, who was selected for the job as cicada educator from 14 applicants. "A lot of people are really interested and excited."

Experts expect the emergence to last about three weeks. The cicada arrival can be dense, with as many as 1.5 million bugs per acre.

Cicadas often are mistakenly described as locusts, but they aren't at all closely related. They are harmless but can be somewhat intimidating because of their large size and bulging red eyes.

Two types of cicadas are commonly found in large numbers in Illinois. Annual cicadas emerge every year. Periodic cicadas come out every 13 years in the southern half of the state and every 17 years in the northern half.

Instances of residents using shovels to remove them from sidewalks and driveways were reported during the last Chicago-area appearance in 1990.

The University of Illinois Extension, for example, has launched a Web site -- web.extension.uiuc.edu/cicadas -- that contains a variety of facts about the large insects, including how they taste.

They reportedly taste like almonds, and if you microwave them carefully, they produce an almond scent, according to the Web site.

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